The U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission will soon approve the historic Comcast and NBC Universal joint venture, which, while not the largest media deal in history, will likely become symbolic of the future of 21st century media.
More than ever before, the name of the game in media is diversity: of viewpoints, content, ownership and distribution platforms. And by any standard, the marriage of Comcast and NBC Universal will promote that diversity.
One measure of this is the series of commitments that Comcast and NBC Universal have made to minority and independent programming in the context of the joint venture. Comcast recently reached a memorandum of understanding on this with the nation’s leading civil rights leaders — Ben Jealous of the NAACP, Marc Morial of the National Urban League, and the Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network. This agreement will set a new bar for increased minority-owned or -controlled television and film content on a variety of new and traditional platforms. Hopefully, other media companies will follow Comcast’s lead.
Specifically, Comcast has committed to add 10 new, independently owned cable channels to its lineup (including four owned by African-Americans) in the next eight years. It will also expand distribution of two major existing black-owned networks. The Philadelphia-based media company will also create a $20 million investment fund to help minority media companies get off the ground. It also announced a host of new opportunities for minority networks through new Internet-based and On Demand platforms. It will launch training and mentoring programs for emerging entrepreneurs and will seek to implement all of these and other programs by working together with a leadership council made up of representatives from civil rights organizations such as the NAACP.
Nevertheless, some critics have argued that the Comcast and NBC Universal joint venture should be blocked or highly regulated because it might give Comcast incentive to limit access to its programming and films or the carriage and distribution of independent programming.
But what these critics fail to note is that Comcast’s track record supporting diverse and independent programming is second to none. In addition to its groundbreaking investments in TV One, the first successful African-American programming alternative to BET, Comcast carries 12 networks that are either owned or operated by African-Americans, including BET, Centric and the Gospel Music Channel — all of which are available to 21 million customers nationwide. Through partnerships with Hip Hop on Demand, H20 and Soul Train, Comcast has, likewise, made quality, cutting-edge content focused on minority audiences available online through its On Demand services.
And while it’s important to note that current FCC rules already prevent this kind of anticompetitive behavior, the realities of the video market just don’t support that kind of activity. Companies want to see their films and television shows in front of as many consumers as possible, and in my opinion, Comcast wants as much exciting new independent content from others if there is a consumer demand for that content.
The reality is that more than ever before, content needs distribution and distribution needs content. Those with television shows want to find more ways of distributing them to thirsty consumers. And those with wireline and wireless distribution networks want to get more content to market them across different platforms.
For African-American and Hispanic media entrepreneurs, this is a very positive move. Minority broadcast ownership levels have dropped precipitously over the past decade, mostly because investors and venture capitalists have shied away from backing them. But when a major media company such as a joint Comcast and NBC Universal comes along with an explicit and express commitment to promote and distribute more minority and independent television programming and film across traditional and new (but proven) distribution platforms — that’s exactly the kind of break young African-American media entrepreneurs need to leverage for necessary financial backing. Any successful African-American media entrepreneur will tell you that.
The Comcast and NBC Universal joint venture is about getting more content on more distribution platforms so that consumers can get what they want and when they want it. In this regard, the two companies have put out a neon sign to promote new kinds of content across all of these platforms. And that is a train on which anyone concerned with breaking down walls and enfranchising the traditionally disenfranchised should board.
Georgia state Rep. Calvin Smyre (D) represents the 132nd district and is president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.