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FCC examines challenges for independent video programmers

The federal regulator is weighing whether additional rules on the distribution of independent and underrepresented programming are necessary.

The federal regulator is weighing whether additional rules on the distribution of independent and underrepresented programming are necessary.

Byron Allen, the founder and CEO of Allen Media Group, has long complained that major video programming distributors have made it difficult to reach carriage agreements for his television channels. (Photo courtesy Allen Media Group)

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) may launch an investigation into whether the current state of television programming distribution is challenging for independent content creators.

In a notice circulated among FCC commissioners this week, the agency’s chairperson Jessica Rosenworcel affirmed the video distribution landscape has evolved over time to include new platforms like streaming video services that allow independent content creators to reach new audiences.

Less clear is whether those platforms allow independent content creators to achieve parity with major film and television studios, and Rosenworcel wants to know if broadcasters and cable platforms are helping or hurting matters in this respect.

“Stakeholders continue to raise concerns that certain marketplace practices by distributors may hinder independent video programmers from reaching consumers across all video platforms and deprive them of access to their choice of diverse programming,” a spokesperson for the FCC wrote in a press release this week.

If the proposal is adopted, the FCC would ask for comment from key industry stakeholders and the public at large for information on the obstacles faced by independent programmers in securing carriage on cable and online platforms, and what action the FCC might take to help ease this burden.

The release didn’t specify what an “independent programmer” is, but it presumably refers to a content creator or studio that is unaffiliated with a major broadcast network or cable or satellite owner. Some independent media firms, including Bloomberg Allen Media Group’s Entertainment Studios, have complained in the past that pay television platforms like Comcast have rejected offers to carry their channels or made it difficult for customers to find them on the systems where they are offered.

Any proposal likely would not affect subscription video services like Netflix, Amazon’s Prime Video or Disney Plus, since those private businesses fall outside the scope of the FCC’s regulatory authority. But it could impact cable and satellite companies that offer streaming television services like DirecTV Stream and Comcast’s Now TV, which replicate the traditional cable television experience through online platforms.

Currently, cable and satellite companies are subjected to the FCC’s “must carry” rule, which requires pay TV platforms that used public rights-of-way or licensed radio spectrum to make independent broadcast stations available to their customers upon demand, but only if the station doesn’t request carriage fees for doing so.

The same must-carry rule doesn’t apply to streaming video services operated by cable or satellite companies, including DirecTV Stream and Comcast’s Now TV, which operate outside the scope of the FCC’s authority and are typically viewed as a lower-cost alternative to traditional pay TV platforms.

The FCC could update its must-carry rule to apply to streaming services that are operated by cable and satellite companies, which would presumably help independent programmers compete against broadcast and cable networks owned by much-larger media firms. But other streaming services, like YouTube TV, Fubo and Vidgo, would likely still fall outside the FCC’s scope of authority, since they are not owned by a cable or satellite company.