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What’s the rush, FCC?

In light of the recent pronouncements from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Obama administration, I am compelled to respond to their notion that the set-top box issue is simply one of expanded competition. 

I am in no way against increased competition, particularly for the benefit of the American consumer. However, what the small and multicultural media providers who have weighed in with the FCC — and what my congressional colleagues who sent letters to the FCC in December, including myself  — find alarming is that the FCC appears to be rushing through sweeping rule changes without first examining the unintended consequences and potentially damaging impact that a radical industry shift could have on an already fragile, small and multicultural media market and its ecosystem. 

{mosads}I strongly believe that promoting greater diversity and inclusion on and in our nation’s shared media platforms is an important public policy goal. These small independent and multicultural media outlets play a critical role in helping diverse communities achieve equal opportunity and full participation in civic life, and they shape public views of diverse communities, as well as perspectives on the causes, social challenges, solutions and victory in overcoming adversity. 

Furthermore, studies have shown clear disparities in the portrayal of people of color on local and national news and that diversity-oriented programming on so-called mainstream media is both scarce and shallow. By contrast, multicultural owned and managed stations offer considerably more diverse and inclusive-oriented content and pay greater attention to community concerns and viewpoints. These minority programmers create opportunities for diverse and inclusive companies to grow and provide employment for individuals who have historically been excluded and marginalized. Thus, access to these media outlets and programming by the broadest sector of society is crucial to ensuring that different perspectives and stories are presented to the American public and that all sectors of society are accurately depicted.

I have heard the arguments from supporters of the set-top box rule changes, that the proliferation of new media and its anticipated convergence with traditional broadcast and cable offer new opportunities for diversity in media and multicultural ownership. However, the small independent and multicultural programmers that will be impacted and their supporters are telling a different story. 

They are concerned that consolidation, business model disruptions, reductions in advertising spending and changes in ad placement strategies are already threatening the survival of this disadvantaged segment of the market. They further caution that the proposal would potentially exacerbate these disturbing trends. There are too many recent examples of what can and will most likely go wrong when sweeping policy measures are enacted without the benefit of diverse and robust discussions.

I have taken several steps to examine how this call for increased competition by proponents of the rule will in fact play out for small and multicultural media providers. I have sent a bipartisan letter of request to the U.S. Government Accountability Office formally requesting an impact study, which it agreed to conduct. During recent hearings conducted by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and a subsequent conversation with Chairman Tom Wheeler’s staff, I requested a formal response from the chairman to my question of delaying a rule-making until an impact study is completed. To date I have not received an official response. Additionally, I have reached out to the White House to find out why they’ve taken this position. 

My question is, simply: What is the rush, FCC? 

As a native New Yorker, I’m all too familiar with express trains leaving the station. From time to time, I have experienced the need to commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan in a hurry, so the express train has saved the day many times over. Nevertheless, one observation I have made with the train zipping along the tracks is the number of people left behind at various stations. I can recall my days of riding the NYC subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan on the local. It allowed me to interact and interface with numerous passengers getting on and off the subway cars. The express would not have afforded me such an opportunity. 

The bottom line is that, on an issue as potentially impactful and consequential as this, we can’t afford to bypass stations. We must ensure that minority programmers are not left behind and the ecosystem they have created upended and destroyed. We must create a space for them to not only survive but to thrive. Technology firms wishing to enter the cable content provider’s space should exercise patience and sensitivity as the FCC, the Obama administration and my office explore the full ramifications that the set-top box rules will have on small, independent and multicultural media providers.

Clarke serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittees on Communications and Technology; Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade; and Oversight and Investigations, along with the Small Business Committee.


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