The word "open" has a puzzling meaning at the FCC these days.
In February, when FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed regulating pay TV set-top boxes, he said the effort was to promote "openness." Multiple times, he talked of new "open standards" and "opening up" pay TV viewing through a process to "openly license" programming.
That plan crashed for many reasons, primarily its prohibitive cost and potential to harm quality programming. Two subsequent versions this summer also failed for the same reasons.
So now, the Chairman is doing something truly puzzling: Rather than seek help from outside experts to create a more viable and affordable plan, he and his staff are once again revising their proposal in total secrecy.
That means no input from the public to determine viewing trends. No input from technology experts. No input from programmers. No input from media licensing experts. And finally, no input from civil rights groups concerned about the impact on African-American, Latino and other minority programs.
The collective opposition from all these groups helped sink the first three FCC proposals - and deservedly so. Those plans were vague and conflicting. Rather than spurring progress on ways to give viewers the shows they want, when they want them, those FCC proposals would have gone in the opposite direction.
Especially noteworthy, more than 200 Members of Congress from both parties aired concerns, including large numbers from the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses. And just last week, Members of Congress joined civil rights leaders at the National Urban League (NUL) and League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in calling for transparency from the FCC.
Moreover, in addition to the proposals' potential harm to minority programming, there was significant concern over the missing protections of consumer viewing privacy. Ask yourself: Would you be comfortable if some nameless company sold information about everything you and your family, including your children, watched on TV? Without your approval?
The FCC's effort to rewrite this plan - for the 4th time in 8 months - in the same insular way brings to mind the saying that insanity is doing the same thing again and again but expecting a different result. The Commission is right to want to create a more accessible pay TV framework but the way it's going about this is clearly flawed.
On an issue this important, the FCC should accept the need to solicit views from outside. Technology and viewer habits are both changing rapidly. If the Commission is going to regulate pay TV distribution, it should at least do it with flexibility and an eye toward tomorrow's reality. That's not too much to ask given Chairman Wheeler's repeated comments about the need for more "openness."