FCC and CBC in Brouhaha over allowing African American TV Production Companies Access to Cable Set Top Box

By Gloria Dulan-Wilson

Hello All:

In a recent event alert I had urged you to tune in on a radio talk show featuring Urban Broadcasting Company founder and CEO, Peggy Dodson, who founded the channel four years ago to give a voice to African Americans and people of color who had heretofore not been included in a significant way in either meanstream or cable and satellite channels or programming.

And I want to highly commend those of you who followed up and followed through.  As you can now understand, there is a battle going on that is at the very heart of freedom of speech and expression for those of us who have been disenfranchised for eons - and there are some of us who have gotten our signals crossed and lined up with the opposition, as opposed to ensuring that their own people are given the rights they deserve.


"Set Top Box" is a term for an item that most of us are familiar with - especially if you subscribe to either cable or satellite TV.  You pay a monthly premium to keep it going so that you can have access to the shows and sports events you want to see.  And in some cases you pay dearly.  There are a plethora of shows on cable - every thing from soup to nuts (mostly nuts) come through the Set Top Box unabated - 24/7/365 - ad nauseum.  However, the one thing most of us do not get are the programs and productions that are proliferating across the country by thousands of African American producers, artists, directors and actors.  Local information, when it does come through is whittled down to a mere sound byte, or ends up as part of some ersatz comedic mention.

Shows that speak to the current conditions, interests, concerns and creativity of the Black community are not part of the ongoing programming of such companies as Comcast Cable.  And the few concentrated, obligatory shows they put on during Black History Month are necessary, but not sufficient to pass as Black programming.

Now I know someone is saying but what about TV ONE and BET. They're Black.  TV ONE, started by the great Cathy Hughes is most definitely Black - and she definitely fought the good fight to be in a position of empowerment.  However, BET, which was sold some time ago to Viacom's Sumner Redstone, has ersatz Black programming - mostly reruns, very little in the way of true innovation.

Realizing this gap in service, the FCC has determined that it is time to open up the Set Top Box to allow for greater diversity via the many and growing small Black (and other) channels.  President Barack Obama has likewise applauded and endorsed the concept and has put his support behind it as well.  So this is a time for celebration - Right?  This is a time for hallaleuah - right?

Apparently not - at least, not yet. There appears to be some dissension amongst members of the Congressional Black Caucus about whether or not this is a good idea.  


You read it right folks.  We have elected officials who are representing us in Congress who are in opposition to allowing the FCC to open up the Set Top Box to other Black Television Production Companies. 

Yep!  I'm just as shocked and dismayed as you are.  

What's so interesting and amazing about this was last year, at a forum held by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, the very issue of Black production and issues being blocked, and the lack of access was the very heart of the topic.  The room was packed with journalists, producers, artists - there to hash out what needed to be done to break down this barrier.  It was so intense the panel discussion ran over the allotted time - there were so many who wanted to weigh in on the issue.

So, now, what is it that the CBC is not understanding about the benefits of African Americans having greater access, expanded programming, relevant productions? Why, with all the other things we need to be addressing in an election year, are we dealing with what could either be called the new version of "divide and defeat" or "the family feud."

I hate to point this out but our Latino brothers and sisters have at least ten (10) stations - most of which can be accessed via cable and satellite TV - and they are national and local.  African Americans one.  

We all understand the issue about being the "only" and the "first"  when it comes to Black issues. We've been going through this for a long time - it is supposedly some mark of honor to have that accolade attached to you.  The first Black person to do this; the only Black person to do that.  What that really speaks to is breaking through the deliberate and concerted limitation of opportunities routinely leveled at us by meanstream media.  So they let one through and that is supposed to assuage and satisfy everyone else. "Look, we got one!  Wow!"   When we decide we want to build a critical mass, or develop a network, or prefer our own cultural programming, the hackles go up, and so do the barriers.  The search is then on for how they can block those who are now taking stands and calling for their right to be heard and accommodated.

Unfortunately, members of the CBC, including Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, have been brought into the picture, and are siding with the mega cable companies. It's unfortunate.

While we applaud the accomplishments of TV ONE - like other major channels in the meanstream system, they cannot continue to be the only one - no station is the end all be all to all Black people's needs, interests, or viewing appetites. Just like everything else, this field is big enough to accommodate more than one African American television company.  


In a recent letter, dated May 19, 2016 (Malcolm X's  91st Birthday) several supporters of "UNLOCK THE BOX" wrote Congressman Butterfield urging him and the CBC to support Black owned Broadcasters:  


What is so unreal is the fact that the Congressional Black Caucus stands to gain a great deal by having constituents who now have access to more relevant programming.   The most largely ignored, and at the same time most relevant group of Black people, can't get coverage in their own communities unless they've committed some crime, or been caught in a compromising position.  Their accomplishments and relevancy go uncovered by the meanstream - even in DC during the caucus, the only time the meanstream shows up is during the dinner when President Obama is there to address the audience.  Often to the shame of the Caucus, the regular, loyal Black producers are shut out in favor of the meanstream media, who then proceed to reduce the entire event down to an eight minute sound byte - never to be seen or heard about again, once the event has ended.

Instead of Congresswoman Clarke asking for the FCC to slow down and do a "study," she should be urging them to speed up the process and make sure they have whatever they need to make it happen.  

President Obama's endorsement of unlocking the box should be more than sufficient for the CBC to view this as a positive step in the right direction; however, in an article posted in the HILL, it turns out that there is some consternation on their part as to whether the President should have made a statement of that nature.  Really?


"One member of the Congressional Black Caucus expressed surprise Friday that she and other members were not consulted before President Obama came out strongly in favor of a proposal to open up the cable set-top box market. 
Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), who spearheaded a letter expressing concern about the Federal Communications Commission proposal, wants to know who advised the president on the issue
"I really have no idea," she told The Hill. "Again, I don't know what his motivation was. I'd like to have a conversation with whomever in his office advised him of that, or perhaps he's had his own conversations."
Clarke, also a member of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Communications and Technology, said there was no outreach to the more than two dozen Black Caucus members who had previously expressed concern that the plan could harm minority programming.
"There was no communication with me or any other member that I'm aware of who has expressed publicly their concerns about this. So I'd like to find out a bit more about what motivated him," Clarke said.
When asked if it seemed strange that the caucus was not consulted, she said, "It does. It does. It does." " - THE HILL ### 
What's so disconcerting is the idea that opening up Set Top Box access to Black TV Production companies could "hurt minority programming" - when the very people asking for it to be opened are minority producers; and the ones who appear to not want it to be made available to them are meanstream cable production companies.  Does anyone see a major disconnect here on the part of the CBC?  My concern is not who's advising President Obama, but rather, who's advising the CBC?  And what is their motivation?

I am happy to know that there will finally be a dedicated minority media caucus included in the Congressional Black Caucus - something I've been calling for, for at least 20 of the 30 years I've been covering them.  There is a serious disconnect between the caucus members and how the Black press is treated over all - especially their veteran reporters who consistently try to give them light.  However, in this instance, if it is for the purpose of blocking access to a wider audience, and or providing enhanced programming for those who already are paying for a service and getting very little from it, then the concept is misplaced.  

When you get down to the bottom line, the Black elected officials were and are elected to reflect and support the best interests of their constituency - which by and large happen to be Black people.  They are there to stand for us when opportunities are being prevented that would make a major difference in our lives and the lives of our loved ones.  With the opening up of the meanstream set top boxes, the way will be made for more and better access to programming, employment and career opportunities, upgrading television viewership (we hope) to more than just the rank and file stereotypical programming that gains currency while more relevant shows are cast aside.  

The leadership at the FCC and President Obama, Bob Johnson (former owner of BET), Robert Townsend, and so many others are on the right track.  UNLOCK THE BOX - Open up the opportunities that have been held away from some of our most talented producers, writers and let Black people see the greatness there is available for them and to them among their own people.

Wake Up CBC - your people need you to be standing with them - not against them.

Stay Blessed & 

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