Sen. Markey, Rep. Eshoo Press for Set-Top Vote

Bob Johnson calls it most important diversity decision in FCC's history

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and House Communications Subcommittee ranking member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) teamed up to make a last-minute push for FCC chairman Tom Wheeler's latest apps-based set-top box proposal.

The FCC is still set to vote on that proposal Sept. 29 despite pushback from some of Markey and Eshoo's Democratic colleagues.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Markey said that the FCC had shown its willingness to address concerns about the initial proposal, had done so in the new proposal by adopting the app-based approach suggested by ISPs, and that "every month" without new rules was another month of consumers paying exorbitant rental fees for "relics of the past."

Eshoo seemed to signal that programmers were now supportive of the FCC proposal, though she later said she was citing an ex parte from Sept. 22 in which those programmers did signal progress but still said having an app licensing body was a nonstarter. Eshoo said that the letter "expresses movement."

The same principal cast on the press call held a similar press conference back in June backing the chairman's initial "unlock the box proposal."

Joining them in the call were Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)—who along with Markey has been pushing hard for a set-top rules revamp—along with various public interest group representatives: BET founder Bob Johnson, now heading RLJ Entertainment, and Allison Abner from the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW).

A representative of Best Buy, which would benefit from a robust third-party device market to sell against leased boxes, offered his support for the FCC proposal as well.

Johnson, who is now an online video entrepreneur, has been pushing for the proposal as a way to give online video providers more exposure alongside traditional video fare, while purveyors of that traditional fare are concerned that could threaten the business model and contracts of established diverse programmers.

Wheeler's revised plan would make set-top box data and programming available to third-party apps and navigation devices, as a way to finally create competition to set-tops—99% of those are still rented from an MVPD—as well as giving online video a boost as a competitor to traditional cable and satellite.

Johnson said that just as BET would not have existed had cable not "broken the broadcast monopoly," new over-the-top offerings, like his own, will not be able to flourish unless the FCC eliminates cable's "stranglehold" on set-top boxes.

He said that would allow new diverse voices to flourish. He said he had told Wheeler that the set-top decision is the most important decision the FCC has ever made in terms of enhancing diversity and access.

Asked why the NAACP, National Urban League and other diversity groups are not supportive of the plan, Johnson said that he didn't think they "quite understand the upside benefits of the apps-based approach," and that some of the incumbents, including BET, are afraid that the a la carte regime the set-top proposal represents will lead to their being dropped due to their cost.

Johnson suggested that while that might be the case, the government should not be choosing winners and losers.

Asked why over 60 of her fellow Democrats have asked the FCC to put out the plan for comment rather than vote on it this week, Eshoo said she had talked to some of them and they had a "lack of understanding about the revised proposal and what it would do for their constituents." She said they also did not understand that the new proposal kept MVPD content within the new app, which she said was very, very significant. She suggested the lead on that colleague letter should have said: "Regarding throwing sand in the gears."