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

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    WASHINGTON (NNPA)  — 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 1 percent of the country’s television channels. Seventy-seven percent of all television channels are White-owned, according to media watchdog group Free Press, which 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 apiece. 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.

    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 its 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.

    Nevertheless, 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.’’

    Cable and satellite providers must pay the channels they carry a monthly subscription payout that can range anywhere from 10 cents to $5 per subscriber. Subscription rates for carriage agreements, on the other hand, can be as low as 1 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 are concerned about this merger because Comcast will own (rival business channel) CNBC.’’

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