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Consumers deserve choice and minority programmers deserve opportunity

In 1980, I started the nation’s first and only African-American owned cable channel. As founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), I know first-hand the barriers minority-owned programmers must face when trying to get carriage on cable. I vividly recall going from cable operator to cable operator to convince them that there was an underserved African-American consumer base who wanted to see quality entertainment and programming that was created especially for them and, more importantly, not available anywhere else.

Over 35 years later, there are still only a handful of African-American-led cable channels, most of which are not available in every market, serving over 12 million African-American cable households who pay billions of dollars in cable subscriber fees.  Today, there have been great changes in how consumers can access content; however, with the myriad of available devices, minority and niche programmers are not given the same visibility and access as the larger programming providers.

{mosads}That’s why I and other minority programmers should encourage the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), led by Chairman Tom Wheeler, to give consumers the choice of purchasing set top devices that can combine traditional cable programming with streaming video content in an integrated user interface that puts all content on an equal footing. Increasing the accessibility of streaming content would provide minority programmers assistance in overcoming the barriers such as access to capital and carriage on cable, which has historically kept them from entering the marketplace.

There needn’t be any narrow end to the programming funnel.  If you have a good program idea, some 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.

RLJ Entertainment has three proprietary digital streaming channels with exclusive and niche-focused content – AcornTV (British mystery and drama), UMC – Urban Movie Channel (urban-themed programming), and AcaciaTV (fitness) – that are available on a variety of platforms but would be better accessed if consumers could also find these and other streaming channels on their set-top boxes.

My primary reason in supporting new program access technologies for navigating over-the-top (OTT) programs which would have a competitive user interface is that it would simply increase control by consumers, which is where it should be and give more opportunities to hundreds of minority programmers. For example, new search and program recommendation algorithms would allow consumers to navigate among a wide variety of choices, without a bias toward the programming favored by the network operator.  This cannot help but promote minority interest programs, networks, and video streams. 

It is hypocritical that one of the arguments used by the video network operators to fight the new program access technologies is that they would disadvantage minority programmers or raise their cost of cable to consumers. On the contrary, the frontier of new media and innovative access to programming through streaming and OTT content, allows newcomers, particularly minority programmers, to have a voice in the age of digital content. 

Let me be clear, I am proud of the relationship I had with the cable industry when I founded BET, and today, as chairman of RLJ Entertainment.  Therefore, I hope my friends in the cable industry will support minority interests in the digital age as they did with BET in the analog era by endorsing the new consumer empowering program set-top box technology available today.

Johnson is chairman of RLJ Entertainment (NASDAQ: RLJE) and founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET).


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