As part of its deal to acquire NBCUniversal, Comcast agreed to launch more minority-owned networks by 2014 — and it's doing just that. From a music and pop culture hub called Revolt from Sean "Diddy" Combs, to a startup backed by Magic Johnson, it's a mixed bag that helps America's biggest cable operator appease the feds — but will it really do much for diversity — or TV viewers?
The announcement of the four new networks is part of Comcast's diversity programming commitment to ten new channels in the next eight years, as part of the larger agreement reached by Comcast with the FCC and the Department of Justice when Comcast cut a deal with GE to become majority owner of NBCUniversal. Comcast feted the four new networks at an event this week in Washington, D.C., where policy-makers were invited to meet the celeb execs behind the startups.
Revolt is backed by Combs (who trumpeted the launch on his YouTube channel) and MTV veteran Andy Schuon, who previously ran the now defunct IMF: International Music Feed channel from Universal Music Group. Revolt will program music videos, live performances, music news and interviews. Scheduled to launch in 2013, "Revolt is the first channel created entirely from the ground up in this new era of social media," stated Combs, who described the channel as "immediate, like today's social networks."
Magic Johnson’s Aspire is the second majority black-owned network, and aims to provide "positive programming for black families" that will compliment BET and TV One, which Comcast owns a stake in. "Aspire will be a network that encourages and challenges African-Americans to reach for their dreams and will celebrate our heritage, our groundbreaking achievements and the fearless talent that has shaped American culture," said Johnson.
The remaining two are majority American-Hispanic-owned, with programming in English:
El Rey, from Hollywood director Robert Rodriguez and FactoryMade Ventures executives John Fogelman and Cristina Patwa, promises action-packed, general entertainment for Latino and general audiences with a programming mix of reality, scripted and animated series, featuring Hispanic producers, celebrities and public figures. "We are passionate about creating a wildly entertaining destination that we can be proud of by appealing to both Latino and mass market audiences," said Rodriguez, known for the "Spy Kids" films.
And fourth up, BabyFirst Americas, a new channel from Spanish-language TV veteran Constantino "Said" Schwarz, will focus on early development of verbal, math and motor skills for babies, toddlers and their parents. "BabyFirst Americas aims to bring the essential academic building blocks for kindergarten readiness into the home," Schwarz said.
Comcast EVP David L. Cohen, who oversees its dealings with federal regulators, stated of the new multicultural network launches that “Comcast is committed to delivering programming that reflects the interests of our customers, and we look forward to integrating these great networks into our rich programming line-up.”
The announcement was also conveniently timed just before Comcast filed its one-year compliance report card on the NBCUniversal deal to the FCC on Feb. 28th, a big part of which dealt with the merged company's diversity goals. In that report, Comcast stated that it had "made good" on the promise to carry more ethnically diverse programming, including "increasing carriage of diverse networks such as the Africa Channel by two million homes, Mnet by four million homes, and TVOne by 600,000 homes. Comcast also expanded distribution of seven Hispanic or Spanish-language independent networks by 14 million homes, surpassing the three network and 10 million homes target in its commitment."
Comcast selected these four new networks after evaluating more than 100 proposals during a year of federal scrutiny of its bid to acquire NBCUniversal. During 2010, Comcast executives were called before Congress to defend the merger and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) was among those most deliberate in her questioning of both companies as to their commitment to hiring and advancing minorities.
Aspire makes Johnson the second African American A-lister (after Oprah's Discovery-backed OWN) to launch a celebrity-branded TV channel since 2011. "We'll learn from those who have gone before us. We understand the landscape, and we will run a sound business,” Johnson commented. "I'm not going to be picking shows. That's not what I do." Johnson will be CEO and Eric Holoman, president of Magic Johnson Enterprises, will be COO.
Each of the 10 networks will be added to select Comcast systems as part of the digital basic subscription tier. Time Warner Cable is also in discussion about carrying Revolt, which would bring distribution between the two to around 18 million households.
Last August, in a comprehensive story, The Wrap detailed frustrations of many executives in African American media as well as civil rights leaders over Comcast and NBCU’s progress and sensitivity in providing more multicultural programming. Even Winfrey’s request for support of the OWN network was rejected by Comcast executives over the carriage fees that Discovery was demanding — and the fact that Comcast insists on owning a piece of any startup network it launches across its cable and VOD (and now streaming broadband) systems.
Russell Simmons also was rebuffed by Comcast president turned NBCU CEO Steve Burke about acquiring the Style network after a realignment of cable-programming management last July diminished the power of Salaam Coleman Smith, the African-American president of the E! spinoff, Style Network. And NBCU has not yet filled its chief diversity officer post vacated by Paula Madison, the company's executive vice president who exited last May.
In The Wrap, Simmons said, “inclusion in the mainstream would be empowering for blacks. Some of us want to be competitive in the broad American economy that [African Americans] do more through trend-setting to influence than anyone.” Simmons was also a backer, via the Simmons Lathan Group, of Hip Hop on Demand, a now defunct VOD channel that was headed up by Will Griffin and reached 25 million cable homes via Comcast, Cox and Bresnan cable systems.
The proof of concept, as many a failed startup network exec will attest (and Comcast's backyard in Philly is littered with their hopes and bones) is whether these new TV brands can make a viable business model by gaining carriage beyond Comcast and by attracting advertisers.
Comcast's Cohen told Multichannel News that the quartet of new networks will launch with 8 million subscribers each. "We understand that none of these networks will be successful if they only are carried on Comcast," he said. "We tried to give them enough of a head start at launch to give them exposure and a real shot in the arm and so that they can sell these networks to other cable and satellite providers and telcos right off the bat."
The good news is that it’s a particularly busy time for African American-targeted networks. Bounce TV launched in September, while Kin TV and Soul of the South are launching this spring, joining BET and TV One. Here’s hoping that more networks increase the probability of better programming for all intended audiences.