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Civil rights groups urge FCC to suspend ‘unlock the box’ campaign

The organizations want to know how diversity will be affected if the program is implemented.


Josh Katzowitz


Posted on Mar 25, 2016   Updated on May 27, 2021, 1:09 am CDT

When the Federal Communications Commission announced in January that it was putting forth an effort to give consumers more flexibility in how they watch TV by, in the FCC’s terms, unlocking the box that sits on top of your television, the commission received backlash from the cable industry’s most important trade association.

But there are others who are also upset with the idea of unlocking the box. As the National Urban League recently wrote in a letter to the FCC chairman, it has joined nine other civil rights and telecommunications groups to ask the commission to pause in its efforts so a disparity study can be conducted to “properly assess whether the proposal is different from a la carte television” in regards to diversity and inclusion.

Joining the National Urban League in sending the letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler are the Asian American Justice Center; Japanese American Citizens League; League of United Latin American Citizens; Multicultural Media, Telecom, and Internet Council; NAACP Washington bureau; Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network; the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation; OCA- Asia Pacific American Advocates; and Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

In January, Wheeler wrote that pay-TV customers were being squeezed for an average of $231 per year to rent those set-top boxes because there were no other alternatives—that’s $20 billion overall for all U.S. consumers, 99 percent of whom must use a box—and, as he wrote, “over the past 20 years the cost of cable set-top boxes has risen 185 percent while the cost of computers, televisions, and mobile phones has dropped by 90 percent.”

But the National Cable & Telecommunications Association responded by saying that metaphorically opening the boxes would be logistically difficult and would allow those who produce third-party boxes to decrease the quality of TV service the cable and satellite companies offer.

The National Urban League, though, says it has other reasons to be concerned.

“The Commission must ensure that the proposal to ‘unlock the set top box’ will truly promote diversity and inclusion, especially since it will empower emerging platforms from a tech industry that has shown very little to no commitment and progress in effecting diversity and inclusion in their own industry,” the letter states.

The National Urban League and its partners write that the employment diversity numbers released by “many tech giants” for 2014 were disappointing with its lack of inclusion. The organizations say they’re worried that the 2015 numbers didn’t show improvement—some numbers actually showed less diversity—and despite the theory that unlocking the box would give the wallets of consumers a break, they don’t believe sacrificing any gains in diversity is worth it.

That’s why they want the FCC to do more research before continuing on this unlock-the-box path.

“At a time when media ownership by women and people of color remain at low levels, we believe that such a disparity study is more important than ever,” the letter says.

Said Marc H. Morial, the president and CEO of the National Urban League: “We simply seek to preserve the decades-long progress made for minorities and women in this area. Therefore, we feel it necessary that the FCC conduct a comprehensive study to guarantee an informed rulemaking process and ensure that its proposal will not result in eliminating diverse and independent programming.”

Meanwhile, a number of tech companies, led by Google, have launched the website that wants to “end the cable boxopoly” and which says that “competition will lower prices and make it easier to watch internet and streaming content on your TV.”

Illustration via Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Mar 25, 2016, 2:35 pm CDT