In 1992 Bill Cosby expressed his desire to purchase NBC -- a network that he turned around with programming featuring African-American characters and story lines -- but was told the network was not for sale.
Not long before that, FOX launched with a major focus on African-American programming -- remember Living Single, Martin, and Roc? But after a series of acquisitions, mergers, stock swaps, and expansion into Fox News, the company abandoned its Black roots, trading Queen Latifah for Glenn Beck.
More recently, when UPN and The WB merged, the first casualties were the African-American shows -- Girlfriends, Eve, All of Us -- that made up the bulk of UPN's line-up.
The answer says a lot about what's wrong with the media in America, and what we need to do to fix it. In short, minority-themed programs get sent to the chopping block first because advertisers will not pay for every African-American viewer that makes up a show's audience. It's the same reason why African-American publishing icons like Ebony/Jet are in decline.
This is true of my own experience with Hip Hop OnDemand. Fortunately, we had lined up big-name sponsors right off the bat. But when global economic woes and other factors led many big companies to cut their ad budgets, in typical fashion our budgets were sacrificed first -- despite the fact that we have experienced viewership growth in each and every quarter. If my company was paid for every one of the 500 million potential ad impressions generated, I could have made my own run at NBC!
Now, the proposed joint venture between NBC and Comcast Corp. has prompted a renewed discussion about the future of minority-owned media and, more broadly, program diversity. At least one organization has called on Congress and the FCC to further delay the deal (it's already been 11 months) unless Comcast sets aside twenty-five channels for African-American media owners, defined as 100 percent African-American owned. But that is simply unworkable and doesn't address the challenges we face; it only delays investment and job opportunities when the nation -- and many of the hard hit urban communities that Comcast serves -- can least afford it.
Defining African-American media ownership as nothing shy of 100 percent undercuts the long-standing policy of using public funds to invest in minority asset managers, who in turn invest in minority media firms like Radio One and Hip Hop OnDemand. Congress and the FCC have made a point of encouraging capital investment in minority media enterprises. But it has never required segregation -- so that Black-owned radio stations, say, could only be funded by Black investors.
And the argument that it's not African-American media if it's not 100 percent owned by African Americans sends the message to minority viewers and would-be media moguls that their favorite show or business venture isn't really Black. Although my African-American partners and I control almost all of the equity in Hip Hop OnDemand, some media diversity advocates apparently do not consider us African-American owned. The same with Radio One, built by Cathy Hughes and Alfred Liggins, that reaches tens of millions of African-Americans each day, hosts great content from the likes of Tom Joyner and Roland Martin and employs thousands of African-Americans -- some argue it's "not Black enough" because they were smart enough to attract investments from Comcast, DirecTV and others. This is a bizarre kind of racial purity. Our President is Black enough, and so are TV One and Hip Hop On Demand.
Media diversity is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Tyler Perry does a great job of presenting African-American films and programs mainly for an African-American audience, while many of us are focused on crossing over, creating programming that appeals to and reflects our increasingly multicultural society. In the 1980s, there was a place for The Cosby Show in a primetime lineup devoid of diversity. In 2010 there's a place for shows like Grey's Anatomy and In Treatment, with African-American Executive Producers and casts representing numerous cultures and languages, with plotlines that highlight how we relate to and learn from one another.
I think it's a big mistake to limit the notion of diversity to media that are 100 percent minority. That's myopic. It attempts to measure African-American media ownership with a protractor, when what is truly needed is a compass. True North points toward more distribution on more platforms by more voices, increases in diverse leadership inside of mainstream media companies, and securing our fair share of advertising dollars. It also points toward getting advertisers on board with the idea that diverse audiences are good for their businesses, because that's the future.
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