Black Caucus Demands Cable Networks Diversify

Mar 17, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are turning up the heat on the cable TV industry, demanding more opportunities for minorities, particularly when it comes to owning cable TV networks.
“We want more minority-owned networks on the air,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., who is leading the charge on the cable industry for the caucus.
Cable’s minority profile is of sufficient concern that 37 of the caucus’s 38 members recently signed a letter that threatens severe regulatory consequences and the possibility of new legislative initiatives if cable’s prospects for minorities don’t improve significantly.
In an interview, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., said the caucus decided not to release the letter officially because cable TV industry representatives agreed to discuss possible solutions to the diversity issues behind the scenes.
But the letter was being circulated in industry circles last week.
“Since we have not seen ample progress in the diversification of content and ownership to assuage our apprehensions, we may no longer be able to justify our current hands-off approach to regulating the cable industry,” said a copy of the letter obtained by TelevisionWeek.
“We believe cable operators have a moral and economic obligation to mitigate these concerns,” the letter continued. “We are not satisfied with your current response to the concerns.”
The letter also said the caucus members hoped that the cable industry would take steps to beef up the diversity of its programming and ownership of cable channels “without the necessity for us to seek legislative solutions.”
In addition, the letter said caucus members expected cable industry representatives to explain how industry mergers were benefiting minorities, particularly African Americans, and how the ownership of cable networks by operators benefits diversity.
“The content of African American programming is severely limited, and more often than not representative of the most negative portrayals of African Americans,” the letter added. “While we do not seek to value-judge specific programs or call for any type of censorship, we do demand that more positive programming gain access to your cable systems. We had much greater expectations for the cable industry and the promises of the industry’s evolving technologies.”
In the interview, Rep. Scott said lawmakers had yet to decide whether to pursue legislation. But he also said he believed it “reasonable” that the cable industry support a minimum of 10 minority-owned networks.
A source close to the issue said the lawmaker also wants the industry to commit to “fair and reasonable” carriage fees for minority-owned networks, along with assurances that the networks will be available to all cable subscribers.
“We’re going to discuss financing of operations and developing ways for those with content getting on the air,” the lawmaker said.
“Everyone agrees that more can be done. We want to make sure the minority community participates fully.”
Added Brian Woolfolk, a former aide to the congressman who is credited with elevating the issue on the caucus’s agenda, “The promise that cable was supposed to offer for diversity of voice and diversity of ownership hasn’t been realized.”
It’s especially irksome to some caucus members that BET-the one major cable TV network that was minority owned and controlled-is now a Viacom property.
Sources said that about a dozen of the caucus’s members attended last week’s meeting, where particular heed was paid to the prospects that the industry would back an investment fund for minority-owned ventures.
“It was a very constructive dialogue,” Rep. Scott said. “Obviously, we will have additional dialogue and we will follow through on our concerns.”
Industry participants at the meeting included: Glenn Britt, president and CEO, Time Warner Cable; Matt Blank, chairman and CEO, Showtime Networks; David Cohen, executive VP, Comcast; Amy Banse, VP, programming investments, Comcast; Debra Lee, president and COO, BET Holdings; and Robert Sachs, president and CEO, NCTA.