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BET Founder on the FCC, the economy and the future of black America

Nicole Sinclair
·Markets Correspondent

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday took the first step toward cable set-top box reform, beginning the process of crafting rules that would give consumers new devices and apps to access pay-TV programs.

One vocal proponent of the new rules is Bob Johnson, who founded Black Entertainment Television, the first cable network targeting the African-American market, in 1980.

Johnson told Yahoo Finance that the FCC’s decision would make it easier for independent and diverse content providers to reach their audience.

“I believe that choice is the most important part of media diversity,” Johnson said. He added that this change is also important for minority programmers “who have been locked out by various gatekeepers.”

“Having access to the diversity of the digital network to get their content and be competitive with some of the larger programs is the most important part of giving minority producers and independent producers a voice equal to that of some of the larger providers,” he said.

And at $200 or more a year, set-top boxes can be cost-prohibitive for some consumers.

“By buying a universal set-top box, which will give them access to cable and streaming, it will save literally billions of dollars for consumers,” Johnson said.

Johnson, who became the first black American billionaire when he sold BET to Viacom (VIA.B) in 2001, is also founder and chairman of RLJ Entertainment (RLJE), which has three digital streaming channels that would be better accessed if consumers could find them and others on their set-top boxes.

Under the FCC plan, cable providers like Time Warner (TWC) and Comcast (CMCSA) would be required to work with technology companies like Apple (AAPL) and Alphabet’s Google (GOOGL) to develop an open standard for attaching set-top boxes to the cable infrastructure in homes instead of leasing the equipment from a cable or satellite company for a monthly fee that is added to your bill.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposal to “unlock the cable box” has garnered much attention as investors and consumers alike process big transformations in how we consume television.

Johnson said he is optimistic about the future of media where cable companies can work alongside new digital alternatives. And through RLJ Companies, a holding company which Johnson founded in 2004, he is investing in a range of industries.  Johnson is invested in entertainment, along with hotel real estate and auto (through car dealerships) -- all sectors he’s bullish on.

Despite the current apprehension over economic and political uncertainties, Johnson said that “from a business standpoint, every business person I talk to still has great confidence in the U.S. economy.”

As a prominent leader in the black community, Johnson said that while some strides had been made since he launched BET in 1980, much more needs to be done to give the black community more opportunities, particularly in terms jobs and access to capital.