Will a Cable-Box-Free Future Be Worse for Minority Americans?

The FCC will vote February 18 on a plan that would open the cable-box market to companies like Apple, Tivo, Roku, and Google.

Eric Gaillard / Reuters

The tyranny of the cable box may soon see its end. Those expensive boxes have long been the only means through which people can watch TV if they want anything aside from basic. That’s given cable companies sole control over the strings to our eyeballs, and that monopoly hasn’t led to much innovation. The Federal Communications Commission will vote February 18 on a plan to bring “consumer choice” to the cable box, by allowing tech companies to develop their own systems, something you’d think might bring joy to all.

But some Hispanic and black organizations aren’t thrilled. One organization even sent a letter to the FCC on Thursday, saying the proposal will make the already-white TV world even whiter.

So, is the proposal bad? It’s hard to say, because other black and Hispanic organizations argue the opposite.

Robert L. Johnson, the founder of BET, wrote in an op-ed that wrangling control away from cable companies would help minority TV startups. “If you have a good program idea, some financing and access to the Internet, you can find your audience,” he wrote. The Congressional Black Caucus argued the opposite, saying the move would toss minority programming into a massive heap of  channels and “relegate it to the bottom of the pile.”

Then there’s the Hispanic Technology & Telecommunications Partnership, which said the plan would “devalue diverse programming and make it harder for networks serving communities of color.” But Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, told Motherboard the plan would increase minority programing by easing access, noting that right now there’s a rather pathetic selection. “I’m paying over $150 per month for cable—what the hell am I getting for my money?” he asked.

So which is it? Is it good for minorities or bad?

It costs about $231 to rent that clunky box each year. That earns cable companies $19.5 billion per year. The proposal would open the cable-box market to companies like Apple, Tivo, Roku, and Google. Cable companies are obviously upset. They’d lose out on billions (they’ve raised cable box prices 185 percent in the past 20 years). And in much the way the Internet has disrupted the way we listen to music, watch movies, and consume the news, it could do the same for the way we watch cable. The proposal would also, cable companies say, upend the way they negotiate premium spots on their channel lists.

That’s partly why some black and Hispanic organization are upset. Right now, wealthy programmers––including those that appeal to minority audiences––pay for prime listing space. In return, people see your network and watch it. But if tech companies take over, who will decide the pecking order? The worry is that tech companies would turn their boxes into vast and depthless rooms––much like the Internet is––where minority programs will lose the slight edge they can buy in the current pay-for-queue-style listing.

Another issue is cost. The FCC wouldn’t require consumers to switch to a third-party box, but TiVo costs about $15 a month, and to outright buy an Apple TV box is $150. Cable companies charge around $7.50 a month—though that cost adds up quickly over time.

Cable boxes have long been a shackle of control. Opening the market to competition would likely lower prices. Not to mention that programming for minorities is already pretty abysmal. Telemundo and Univision are behemoths in media, but young Hispanics don’t watch TV in just Spanish. English networks with a Hispanic bias are pretty rare, and as Nogales told Motherboard, there’s really just the Fusion channel, “and that’s it.”

That was Johnson’s same argument for why the FCC should pass the plan. Back when he built BET, he had to first convince the gilded cable companies that enough black consumers wanted to watch his channel just so they’d try it out in their cable lineups. It was a success. But since Johnson started BET 35 years ago, only a handful of black-led channels have joined cable listing. The biggest reason why he supports the plan, Johnson wrote, is because it “would simply increase control by consumers.” No more corporate suits to convince. Each remote is its own vote.