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.”
According to a 2007 Free Press Study , women, who comprise 51 percent of the US population, own a total of only sixty-seven stations, or 4.97 percent.
So why did civil rights groups support a big bad leap in the wrong direction? As I mentioned, they cut a deal. Or rather, some of them did. Reported saltily by Eric Deggens at the Tampa Bay Times , the NAACP, the National Urban League and Al Sharpton’s National Action Network supported the Comcast/NBC Universal merger in return for corporate “diversity-boosting” measures, among them, eight new independently owned and operated networks offering substantial participation by minorities, a $20 million venture capital fund for minority entrepreneurs in digital media, the creation of Diversity Advisory Councils and the increase of minority participation in news and public affairs programming.
Just in case you were wondering, Al Sharpton’s gig on MSNBC as host of his own nightly show has absolutely nothing to do with this. Nothing. Not a thing . (Neither did the award the National Action Network gave to Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, shortly before he was hired.)
Did women’s groups even try for such a deal? As far as I can uncover, they did not. Carol Jenkins, former director of the Women’s Media Center, doubts there was any comparable negotiation between Comcast and the heads of women’s groups. The current director of the Center, Julie Burton, knows of none. Gloria Steinem doesn’t know about it. Sadly it’s simply the case that, Planned Parenthood aside, there’s no women’s organization with the heft of the NAACP, and none that makes media power through ownership its issue. (There are plenty that deal with sexism, bigotry and lack of representation—but without power, you’re left with pleading.)
That’s why we need government. Oh I forgot. Affirmative Action is unconstitutional. (Even if the Fourteenth Amendment does mention a little something about “equal protection.”) If it wasn’t on the rocks already, the Supreme Court may be about to drive a stake  through it.
What we’re left with is a win courtesy of corporate concession. To their credit, winning concessions from those in power is part of what civil rights groups are supposed to do. In a time of tight credit, there will be new venture capital money for minority media entrepreneurs and for a while there will be jobs at those new channels, including jobs for “minorities.” That’s all good. On the other hand, Coombs is already a music mogul; Johnson already owns a radio network. As Deggens wrote this week , Will channels for non-celebrities come next? There’s no guarantee of that. Worse, with this one corporate crumb, Comcast bought off a whole lot of public pressure that could have burnt beneath the FCC until they did what they’re supposed to which is regulate—not in Puffy’s but in the public interest.
It’s a huge blow to women’s rights and the broad tent of civil rights that—if the coverage of this deal is any indication—“diversity” as a concept has been shrunken to refer only to race. Carol Jenkins, who broke into TV thanks to movement pressure and lawsuits brought by the government against the networks, says, “It’s as true as it ever was, people have to be reminded that women are underrepresented and underserved.”
The majority of the population with nothing like a majority of media power, women do have a special page on the Comcast site—and to show how much they care, it’s pink.  And it’s not impossible for women to find well paying jobs in the company. Take former FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker. Just four months after she voted, along with three of the agency’s other FCC commissioners, to approve Comcast’s acquisition of NBC, Com cast hired  her. That puts a whole new spin on affirmative action. And a channel that glues toddlers to TV sets? Women—and child minders everywhere—have got to be happy about that, right?