Google Giveaway Threatens Diversity

Last month, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler introduced a massive new federal regulation of the television marketplace – one that feeds the wealthiest Silicon Valley tech giants at the expense of nearly everyone else.

After years of lobbying by Google, Mr. Wheeler unveiled a plan that gives tech companies the right to repackage television programming rights owned by others into their own devices and products – allowing these tech companies to track customers’ viewing data and permit them to insert even more ads in and around TV programming, all without paying a single penny to those creating this content.  For these search engine tech companies, this sounds too good to be true.  For content providers like Vme TV, this sounds illogical and dubious at best.

This rule, which mirrors the “AllVid” proposal rejected by President Obama’s FCC in 2010, is an offensive sweetheart deal for Silicon Valley tech firms.  It’s a government mandate that tells a privileged class of favored tech firms, particularly those that have hired numerous former Obama Adminstration officials for their lobbying efforts, that they don’t have to negotiate for the rights to use the creative works of others.  Rather, the FCC has determined Google and other search engines can simply take the television content for free – eschewing the need to negotiate agreements with television networks that others in the media industry have worked hard to forge.  In essence, the federal government is now picking winners and losers on your TV.

This unabashed lobbying gambit is a marvel to observe and reflects why Washington today has such a poor public approval rating.  Google has used its control of Internet search to dominate online advertising, decimate publishing and other creative industries and unleashing a torrent of pirated music and video on unsuspecting consumers.  It’s now leveraging this power and its relationships in DC to enter the television frontier, utilizing the FCC as its shill and the red herring of promoting “competition” and consumer choice to justify its expansion of power.  I believe the public would object to this new “consumer choice” if it results in more ads on their television programming, less quality TV programming, and last but not least, Google having more access to their viewing habits so that they in turn can sell this data to third parties.  This influence is so unbased that investigative journalists are documenting how Google’s influence over government is starting to resemble something out of The Pelican Brief.

Now Google is leveraging those cozy relationships in Washington to open a backdoor into the lucrative television marketplace, saving them from doing the hard work needed to actually compete fairly by creating or licensing a bundle of high-quality video content.

 Programmers and independent content creators have denounced the plan, which will give Big Tech a government license to strip mine the creative ecosystem by jettisoning the licensing deals that are the foundation of the modern TV ecosystem.  These deals – carefully negotiated between program creators and TV services – set terms for advertising, channel placement, on demand rights, and most fundamentally, licensing fees that produce the revenue needed to create quality programming in the first place.

But the new “Google Box” promoted by Chairman Wheeler would apparently be free to ignore all of these contract terms – devastating smaller and diverse networks that live and die off the rights they negotiate, and are least prepared to absorb the revenue losses that would inevitably follow.  It would be an FCC mandate to whitewash TV, leaving communities of color out in the cold once again.

Chairman Wheeler waves off these diversity concerns by pointing to support for his idea from former BET CEO Bob Johnson, who now runs online streaming services that he hopes would benefit from the AllVid rule.

Johnson argues that being on “equal footing” on a Google box will mean more opportunities and wider audiences for minority programmers.  But this is a false promise.

We all want to see more opportunities for minority-focused programming – including scrappy digital startups and new streaming services.  Thankfully, the barriers to entry for minority storytellers have never been lower, thanks to innovative devices like Roku, Apple TV, and smart TVs that have already made almost any web-based content easily accessible on your living room big screen.  AllVid won’t provide audiences access to any content that isn’t already easily accessible through a vast, growing universe of consumer-owned devices.

 But in exchange for this empty promise of access, AllVid would tear down the economic foundations of full-service networks serving communities of color, leaving our audiences with YouTube channels and similarly underfunded platforms that does not put our communities on “equal footing” in any way.  Certainly Mr. Johnson, who built BET into a business worth $3 billion, would agree that real carriage with large distributors creates vital opportunities for minority-focused networks and their viewers that far outstrip those any Internet video platform can offer.  I would seriously doubt Mr. Johnson while at BET would have quietly accepted a government mandate permitting a large technology company with government ties to profit from using BET programming for free.

But Chairman Wheeler’s proposal throws that model out the window, leaving us at the mercy of AllVid tech companies that could drop our channels, bury them at the bottom of digital search results, or demand that we pay for better placement on search pages. Meanwhile, Google would enjoy an unearned windfall, launching new products and services on the backs of our work – a confounding government handout to one of the biggest companies in the world.

 It’s no surprise that Google – a company whose abysmal record on other diversity issues is well documented – would ask for such a handout. But it’s a huge disappointment that an FCC Chairman and now President Obama would give such an odious plan their personal stamp of approval.

Victor Cerda is Vice President, Vme TV.