Not All Media Mergers Are The Same

Brilliant careers need a place to start, and a place to be seen. The first black director to win an Oscar for Best Picture didn’t start in Hollywood, but grew up in working-class London in the ‘70s and ‘80s. A poor student, he was nonetheless exceptionally creative and hard working. Years later, he made his first movies, all shorts. Eventually, Steve McQueen would win an Oscar, for his deeply moving feature-length film “12 Years a Slave.”

So what does a British movie director have to do with U.S. media mergers? A lot. It’s all about giving talent, especially from unlikely backgrounds like McQueen’s, an opportunity to be seen.

A key issue before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), as it considers the “public interest” in the AT&T-DirecTV merger, is how to ensure diverse voices have access to the major television platforms in the U.S. Not all mergers the FCC will review are the same.

In particular, both AT&T and DirecTV deserve recognition for backing independent TV channels that empower young talent from many sources, such as McQueen. Some critics have questioned the AT&T-DirecTV deal’s possible impacts on consumers and independent channels. Contrary to critics’ concerns, these companies have shown a commitment to emerging talent.

And I should know. As founder of an independent TV channel dedicated to short movies, I’m painfully aware of the challenges new voices face breaking into a largely closed U.S. marketplace. That’s despite the fact that short films are fantastic entertainment.

Just as importantly, short films can be a career springboard for talent of both genders and every background. For instance, 5 percent of feature-length films have women directors, but women helm fully half of all short films. This year, the Motion Picture Academy nominated more female directors for short-film Oscars than it has handed out, combined, to female directors of feature-length films throughout its 85-year history.

Short films have been the career starting point for many monumental talents, from Walt Disney and Laurel & Hardy to Steven Spielberg; from Pixar’s John Lasseter, whose first short launched a generation of CGI animated blockbusters, to Emmy-winning “True Detective” director Cary Fukunaga, whose career took off when his short film was nominated for an Oscar.

But those shorts need access to major television distribution platforms to be seen and appreciated by America’s entertainment audiences. The works of talents such as Lasseter, Fukunaga and other excellent short-film makers were hard to find before AT&T and DirecTV added ShortsHD to their programming lineups. Not every pay-TV provider has worked as hard to accommodate sources of independent TV.

Why is it so tough to bring groundbreaking content to U.S. pay-TV platforms? The “Big Five” media companies (Disney, NBCUniversal, Fox, CBS/Viacom and Time Warner) control more than 80 percent of U.S. channels. They have leveraged that position into a suffocating stranglehold on video product margins, consumer choice and, ultimately, the independent spirit.

In the game of musical chairs that is carriage on pay-TV, the Big Five repeatedly pull out the seat from under independent programmers. AT&T and DirecTV have fought those efforts, ensuring consumer access to a broader array of content from a broader array of creators.

Critics are right to be concerned that continued media consolidation challenges the very survival of independent voices in television. But AT&T and DirecTV deserve every consideration from the FCC for their willingness to embrace independent entertainment channels that diversify and broaden the TV experience. The U.S. is rich in talent.  But to get a start in TV and film, brilliant entertainers need a place to be seen.

Carter Pilcher is founder and Chief Executive of ShortsHD. He is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.