Warning that Internet video distribution could, like cable television, become “dominated by a few vertically-integrated conglomerates,” the WGA West made its last pitch to the FCC today for proposals to protect Internet neutrality. The FCC is expected to hand down its new policy on the issue within a few weeks, following the close today of a public-comment period on the latest proposal to regulate Internet transmission of video and other data.
In January, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. struck down parts of the FCC’s 2010 rules, leading to a new round of guidelines, including a controversial provision that would say Internet Service Providers “may not act in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet.”
The WGA and hundreds of content providers and public interest groups have told the FCC that they fear “commercially unreasonable” is so broad a term, big ISPs such as AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner Cable will find ways to extract payments from content providers for faster delivery of their shows. That would stifle competition and reduce Internet access for smaller creators without the funds to buy high-quality delivery service.
“In a few short years,” the guild wrote in its 39-page letter, “the rise of Internet video distribution has created the opportunity for a more diverse, competitive and independent market for content. Writers have new outlets to sell to and consumers have an expanded menu of content options to choose from. But the promise of vibrant video competition is threatened by incumbent control of distribution.”
The WGA said broadband providers already are working to reduce Internet openness, “abusing their market power,” a situation that will the ISPs into “intractable content gatekeepers,” similar to the current, heavily concentrated and integrated situation in cable. The guild is also urging the FCC to reclassify ISPs as “common carrier services,” a big increase in regulation of the Internet that the union said is vital, but that Verizon would require ISPs to charge for faster access.
The guild’s paper called the Internet, “a tremendous engine for commerce” and “the modern town square. The rules that govern access to this essential platform should not be reduced to a standard such as commercial reasonableness.”
The guild offered a history lesson about what has already gone wrong because of TV industry consolidation, which it said has “limited the diversity of programming available to Americans. Independent programming has declined from 76% of all broadcast primetime programming in 1989, to only 10% in 2013” after the repeal of the so-called Fin-Syn rules on ownership of syndicated programming back in 1995.
“The broadcast networks used retransmission consent to gain control of the basic cable market, requiring carriage of basic cable networks they owned as a condition of local station retransmission. As a result, the same companies that own the broadcast network also control cable television,” the guild wrote. Heavy concentration has led to a decline in independent programming, and reduced job opportunities for writers because there are fewer employers.
“In 1989, 89% of TV writing jobs and 88% of TV writing compensation came from independent producers. By 2013, those figures have declined to 25% and 14%, respectively…Writers, who are the R&D of this industry, bear all the risk of developing new creative works while the media companies… reap the rewards. As the entertainment industry has consolidated, diverse viewpoints have been eliminated. If programming does not advance the economic interests of the media companies, it has little chance of airing.”