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Comcast Under Fire: Black Media Reps Demand More Black-owned Channels

Pharoh Martin | 5/24/2010, 12:23 p.m.

Ownership is a major driver of the Black economy. Knowing this, a group advocating Black media ownership and a former Federal Communications Commission chairman are spearheading a crusade against cable giant Comcast and their proposed merger with NBC/Universal over the cable operator's lack of African-American owned channels on its national platform.

"When you really start thinking about the areas that are critically important to us as African-Americans, one of the biggest issues is our ability to own, distribute and create our image," said Stanley Washington, president of the National Coalition of African American Owned Media (NCAAOM).

Although African-Americans make up almost 13 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, they own far less than one percent of the country's television channels. Seventy-seven percent of all television channels are White-owned, according to media watchdog group Free Press, who cites public FCC filings.

The numbers do not include stations owned by publicly held companies whose boards are typically not very diverse.
If the FFC approves the merger, Comcast, already the country's largest cable and home Internet provider, will own 44 of the 250 channels carried on its platform.

According to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism's 2010 State of the Media Report, the top three owners of African-American-targeted cable channels are TV One and media behemoths Time Warner and Viacom, who both own three such channels a piece. Viacom's African-American-targeted channels such as BET, VH1 Soul and new channel Centric dedicate a significant portion of its programming toward music videos.

"In addition to cable networks and Video-on-Demand, Comcast also carries several broadcast stations around the country that are African-American owned and/or targeted to African-American audiences," said Comcast spokesperson Sena Fitzmaurice in a statement. "Our desire to work with African-American media owners extends proudly to our seminal role in partnering with Radio One to launch TV One in 2003."

After Black Entertainment Television's sale to Viacom by Robert Johnson in 2003, TV One is the closest thing to a Black-owned cable channel that Comcast has on its basic cable platform. Comcast owns 33 percent of the Black-targeted channels along with Radio One, which owns a 40 percent interest. Until it became a publicly-traded company, Radio One, with it's 69 radio stations and other media properties, was the largest Black-owned media company in the U.S.

Its African-American founder Cathy Hughes and her son Alfred Liggins, who is the company's chief executive and chairman of TV One's board, still control 90 percent of the company's vote. Still, Washington contends that TV One is not technically "Black-owned" because although Radio One is a majority owner it still operates as a publicly-traded company.

Washington is demanding that if the FCC approves the Comcast and NBC/Universal merger, then at least 25 channels or 10 percent of the 250 channel capacity that Comcast carries in its basic cable platform should be allocated to Black-owned cable channels.

The demand is not unprecedented. When the FCC approved the merging of satellite radio company's Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. and XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc in 2008, the companies agreed to dedicate 8 percent of their channels to African American-owned media. Are there even enough viable African-American ownership groups available to sustain 25 cable channels?

"Absolutely," said Washington. "We have a number of African-American led groups that have come to the table and they have tried to build themselves strong, viable channel opportunities in the industry."

Washington is not demanding 25 different Black owners. One owner can own and control multiple channels as big corporations already do, he said. He just wants parity.

"We just want as African-American owners in a free trade environment to be able to come to the table fairly like everybody else," Washington said. "It doesn't have to be 25 BETs or TV Ones. It can be any kind of channels or any type of content. Ultimately, we're looking for ownership in the platform."

Possible high-profile players could be people like BET founder Robert Johnson, who is awaiting the FCC to approve his plan to launch a new television network called Urban Television, and television host and producer Byron Allen who already has six channels on Verizon's FiOs fiber-optic television service. Television personalities like Tyler Perry, Ice Cube, P. Diddy and Russell Simmons are already heavily responsible in the creation of Black programming on major networks and could have a hand in new channels.

"Comcast distributes a variety of minority- and/or independently-owned channels," Comcast's spokesperson said. "We have carriage agreements with independent, African-American networks, such as The Black Television News Channel, which will deliver news and information specifically relevant to the African-American community, and The Africa Channel, which is carried in many Comcast systems today. We also carry other cable networks and Video-On-Demand programming of interest to African American audiences including BET, Centric, VH1 Soul, and the Gospel Music Channel."

While not on its national platform, Comcast has carriage agreements with Black-owned channels the Africa Channel, which focuses on programming about and from the continent it was named after, and the Black Television News Channel, a not-yet-launched 24/7 Black news channel founded by J.C.

Watts, a former Black Republican congressman from Oklahoma. The agreement allows Comcast to selectively roll out a channel to a limited number of markets where it is expected to perform well. Washington charges that carriage agreements do not give independent channels an equal playing field to perform.

"Instead of giving the Africa Channel an opportunity to be widely carried, Comcast, which is the nation's largest cable provider and has 25 million households, will give them a carriage agreement--which is essentially a hunting license. But they won't put them on their basic cable platform to be widely-distributed nationally," Washington said.

Cable and satellite providers must pay the channels they carry a monthly subscription payout that can range anywhere from 10 cents to five dollars per subscriber. Subscription rates for carriage agreements, on the other hand, can be as low as one cent per subscriber, according to Washington. Because of their limited distribution, the subscriber base for channels with carriage agreements are far less than basic cable channels.

"What Comcast has been doing is economically starving our business owners out of the business by not giving them fair revenue from subscriber fees that they pay everybody else and by not widely carrying them on their platform," Washington said.

He charges that Comcast viewed the Robert Townsend founded-Black Family Channel, which folded in 2007 over lack of distribution, as a competitor to its TV One channel and limited its support. He contends that they are doing the same thing to the Africa Channel.

"At the end of the day, the Black Family Channel was unable to sustain itself enough to be able to grow to become a channel on Comcast and other platforms," he said.

In an April letter to Comcast chairman Brian Roberts, Willis Edwards, vice president of NAACP's Beverly Hills Hollywood chapter, wrote, "After decades of ignoring this problem, the perpetual lack of support behind African American owned media can only be described as discriminatory and Restraint of Trade...Our focus on this issue is only the first step in an established strategy to expose what many consider the largest trade deficit in this country; the one between Corporate America and Black America.

There is a belief that Comcast has been operating in a restraint of trade with a lot of businesses- the Tennis Channel, The NFL Channel, [financial and business channel] Bloomberg Television is concerned about this merger because Comcast will own [rival business channel] CNBC."
The Tennis Channel and the NFL Network have filed lawsuits against the cable giant over fair trade practices, some connected to its ownership of rival channels.

"If those big players with mass resources can't compete, imagine what happens to us?" Washington said.

Over the next 18 months Comcast is converting its platform to become entirely digital. Like it's satellite competitors, Comcast will be able to have a virtual unlimited channel capacity, which could mean better opportunities for independent and Black-owned channels to be carried nationally.
In the mean time, the NCAAOM is working on filing a restraint of trade lawsuit against Comcast. They have retained former FCC chairman Kevin Martin as their lead attorney.

As the FCC head under the Bush administration, Martin earned a fierce reputation of being 'anti-cable' over his series of regulatory battles against cable operators. Fitzmaurice said that all subscriber fees are individually negotiated between each channel and carrier. A popular channel like ABC-owned ESPN with it's expensive sports broadcast licenses and it's millions of viewers has the leverage to negotiate a higher subscriber fee than an independent channel with very little name recognition.

"We have to pay and, ultimately, our customers have to pay," Fitzmaurice said. "We have to determine our programming based on what we and our customers have to pay for these channels."