Television’s Trojan horse

The celebrated story of the Trojan horse involves the ancient Greeks tricking their way into Troy by leaving a giant wooden horse on its shores.  Inside the giant structure was an army of attackers, but the Trojans were fooled into believing it was a gift from the gods.  This is how the famous saying “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” became immortalized.  

African American and other minority communities have seen many such “gifts” in recent years.  A decade ago, for example, we were told that a la carte television – buying cable channels individually – would allow consumers to save a bundle.  

But then the Government Accountability Office and countless other studies found that the proposal would actually drive costs up and that it would be the death knell for minority-focused networks such as TV One, BET, Univision and Revolt TV. Minority networks thrive when distributors include them in popular packages, just like boutiques thrive at malls with large anchor stores.    

Now comes a new proposal supported by Big Tech – Google, Amazon, TiVo, and others – to impose a new federal mandate on the television industry called “AllVid” that would, once again, supposedly save money and increase consumer choice.

Another Trojan horse?  It certainly seems so.  And this time from companies with dismal track records of hiring and promoting people of color.

In simple terms, AllVid regulations would require existing television distributors like cable and satellite companies to hand over their programming to competitors like Google who would then repackage and resell it themselves.  The AllVid companies wouldn’t have to do the hard work of negotiating for programming rights like every other distributor has to; they would just free-ride on rights negotiated by their competitors.

Even worse, the AllVid companies wouldn’t have to respect most of the licensing terms and conditions on which small and minority networks depend.  They could drop those networks, add new layers of advertising, and disregard agreements on vital terms like program schedules, channel placement, and advertising rights. 

But the destructive impact of AllVid doesn’t end there.  Under such a federal mandate, AllVid companies could place adult programming next to children’s programming, offer pirated copies of shows and movies alongside legitimate programming, ignore the rules that protect the privacy of your television viewing habits, flout rules limiting aggressive marketing to children, and even potentially block or limit emergency broadcast messages.

Meanwhile Big Tech would do what it does with everything it touches – sell the data about your individualized television viewing habits to advertisers.  Big Tech would be like Big Rambo in our television ecosystem, sucking out profits from smaller networks and destroying the fountain of creativity in television and video that our viewers adore. 

Alfred Liggins, the CEO of the wildly successful African American TV One network, summed up the problems with AllVid best, arguing in a recent column that it is “a sweetheart deal” for Big Tech, allowing them “to poach the programming rights negotiated by pay-TV companies and others.”  The result, he says, would be to dry up revenue that small and minority-focused networks depend upon to fund new programming and “cause the ‘Golden Age of TV’ that everyone celebrates today to collapse.” 

Big Tech says the AllVid mandate is needed for the simple and narrow goal of spurring competition in set-top television boxes used by satellite, telco and cable providers.  But that is a red herring argument because the apps revolution is making telco, satellite and cable TV programming widely available on smartphones, tablets and smart TVs.  

These apps are already available on hundreds of millions of devices, and innovative set-top box alternatives like Roku and Apple TV are giving consumers more options than ever before.  Streamers with original programming like Netflix are also more popular than ever, boasting more subscribers than any other video provider.  

Big Tech may have a powerful lobby in Washington, but that’s not a good reason for the federal government to pass massive new regulations on a vibrant marketplace that has produced so many video choices and new video devices.  

And if the FCC even begins to consider rules in this area, it should observe the Hippocratic oath and first do no harm to small and minority programmers, to the creators of television programming, or to a television ecosystem that is thriving for consumers.  

Pugh, a Democrat, is the majority leader of the Maryland Senate and president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.