The new “minority” channels from Comcast are well and good, but where are the women’s channels? This week’s news from Comcast reveals the saggy soft underbelly of our movements, the sad state of civil rights law and the weakness of our women’s organizations. Score one for Sean Combs but not much for the public interest.
The announcement came on Tuesday. Cable giant Comcast is to launch four new minority-owned channels; one channel each for rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, retired NBA star Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Spy Kids director Robert Rodriguez. A fourth channel will go to toddlers. (BabyFirst Americas, owned and operated by Hispanic-Americans, will include brightly colored content for children under age 3.)
The new channels are the direct result of a private deal cut with civil rights organizations in exchange for those groups’ support of Comcast’s takeover of majority control over NBC Universal from General Electric last year.
The latest and most insidious of a string of same-sort media marriages, the Comcast/NBC merger had activists particularly riled up because it married a content producer (NBC) with a content distributor (Comcast), threatening not just the public interest but other media businesses’ ability to compete. The New York Observer estimated that the new media dynasty would control almost a quarter of all cable subscribers in the country and 12 percent of all television content.
More chilling for people concerned about the public interest is the track record after decades of media mergers like this. As far as diversity is concerned, media consolidation breeds contempt. Corie Wright, a lawyer with Free Press, put it to me this way: “Media consolidation is the number-one obstacle to women and minority ownership, as well as diverse viewpoints in the media.”
Its no accident Wright links gender and race. When they were handing out the first broadcast licenses, in the 1930s for example, neither women nor minorities were in that receiving line. As with many federal agencies, the Federal Communications Commission has been charged with righting that imbalance. Deep in the bowels of its bureaucracy is a commitment to ensuring diversity, including minority and female ownership of broadcast stations. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandated the Commission distribute “licenses among a wide variety of applicants, including small businesses, rural telephone companies, and businesses owned by members of minority groups and women.”
It hasn’t happened. To the contrary, as the FCC has relaxed its ownership regulations, ownership by women and people of color has shrunk. In February 2010, Congressman Maurice Hinchey testified against the Comcast merger, arguing that media consolidation over the past twenty years had diminished independent and diverse ownership:
“Today, five companies own the broadcast networks, 90 percent of the top 50 cable networks, produce three-quarters of all prime time programming, and control 70 percent of the prime time television market share. These same companies own the nation’s most popular newspapers and networks also own over 85 percent of the top 20 Internet news sites. There has also been a severe decline in the number of minority-owned broadcast stations. In 2007, minorities owned just 3.2 percent of the U.S. television stations and 7 percent of the nation’s full power radio stations, despite making up more than 34 percent of the population.”