By Byron Dorgan
June 9, 2016 at 5:00 am ET
As a longtime member of the House and Senate, I championed efforts to promote diversity in media and to prevent consolidation of media giants. Unfortunately, recent years have seen increasing consolidation of media control into the hands of a handful of large providers. As a result, barriers to entry persist for diverse and independent voices, even despite the burgeoning potential of online video to break through those barriers, or bypass them entirely.
The fight for diversity in media continues on today, and nowhere is there a clearer opportunity to promote diverse, independent, and niche voices than in the FCC’s current effort to finally “unlock the box” and harness the full potential of a competitive video marketplace.
The FCC’s plan to end the cable monopoly on set-top boxes stands to greatly benefit consumers, saving families hundreds of dollars each year on set-top boxes that create a multi-billion-dollar drain on the economy, harm consumers and hinder innovation. But it also means an explosion of new opportunities for a vast array of content creators and programmers who have never been able to get a foot in the door on traditional pay TV.
It’s not secret that the pay TV marketplace, and the cable TV industry in particular, has a poor track record when it comes to diversity. The Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA recently found that in traditional pay TV markets, minorities are underrepresented by more than 2 to 1 among lead roles in cable programming, nearly 5 to 1 among creators of cable shows, and greater than 4 to 1 among writers credited for cable scripted shows. Byron Allen has recently drawn sharp attention to diversity in the cable industry – in particular the lack of carriage of any 100 percent African American-owned media.
Meanwhile, online distribution allows creators to reach consumers with far fewer barriers to entry. The online video marketplace allows minority-owned businesses and creators to bypass traditional gatekeepers — whether they are cable companies or large online platforms — and reach viewers directly. The infinite channels and services that can be created online provide a more inclusive environment for content created or owned by diverse and minority voices, or targeted to those communities.
That’s where the FCC’s proposal for a more competitive device-and-app video ecosystem comes into play. By loosening the pay TV industry’s control over which voices have access to Americans’ living rooms, the FCC can ensure that all those diverse, independent, and niche voices have a fair shot. They will no longer be held hostage by gatekeepers who control barriers to entry, passing judgment from on high as to which voices will and will not be heard. Instead, creators can create what they want, how they want, and connect directly with their audiences.
Many content creators – particularly those most disproportionately underrepresented in traditional pay TV markets – have already spoken out about the opportunity the FCC’s competitive device and app proposal opens for diverse content. This group includes not only programmers who have been stymied by the traditional pay TV model but also those who have been successful yet recognize the need for everyone to gain access to consumer eyeballs. Robert Johnson, the creator of BET, is a strong proponent of the plan, having experienced firsthand the massive hurdles to be leaped before one can be blessed for entry by Big Cable.
Meanwhile, others attest to the boon new content avenues have been, allowing them to reach viewers directly without those pay TV hurdles at all. Creators everywhere have increasingly found that competition and opportunity in the content industry, enabled by the internet, could be harnessed even more effectively in an open device marketplace.
An open device and app market will not only allow new diverse entrants into the arena, but also make it easier for consumers who crave a more diverse array of programming and ideas to find that content, whether on pay TV or online. As Mr. Johnson puts it, “If you have a good program idea, a little financing and access to the internet, you can find your audience. But your audience can find you only if they have a modem or a set-top box or software that lets them know you are there and gives them access to your programs unconstrained by the network gatekeeper.”
America is a tapestry comprising all varieties of shapes, ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, and individual interests – and it is imperative that our media in all its forms reflect that. Congress recognized this when it mandated the FCC to ensure a competitive video marketplace in Section 629 of the Telecommunications Act. After 20 years of waiting, the FCC stands poised to make that a reality. It’s time to give content creators more platforms to share their stories on without gatekeepers – it’s the best way to give consumers the diverse content we all so richly deserve.
A 30-year veteran of the U.S. House and Senate who served on the Commerce Committee and worked on telecommunication issues, Byron Dorgan is now a Senior Policy Advisor at Arent Fox LLP and is serving as an advisor to TIVO.