News

Caucuses On The Watch

9/14/2003 8:00 PM Eastern

As the industry embarks on its annual weeklong celebration of diversity, at least two minority-based congressional caucuses are studying whether cable is living up to its rhetoric.

The Congressional Black Caucus — following up on its March meeting with industry executives — will hold a roundtable strategy session on Sept. 26 involving minority-owned network and supplier company executives in an effort to create opportunities for them to compete in an increasingly consolidated cable world, according to sources.

The meeting comes on the heels of a June gathering between top industry executives and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to discuss the industry's track record and ongoing effort regarding diversity.

Along with African-American-owned cable companies, the roundtable forum will also feature representatives of civil rights and professional minority organizations such as the National Urban League, and the National Medical Association.

Spearheaded by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), Caucus attendees are expected to leave the meeting with specific goals in mind to counter the lack of minority representation, which most members deem to be unacceptably low.

"Everyone knows that there are concerns and no one question's that African-Americans are underrepresented in ownership," said Brian Woolfolk, a partner in the Mattox-Woolfolk Pro Bono Project, a lobbying practice that works with the CBC. "This forum is going to be a roundtable strategy discussion to determine what to do about it."

Employment Channel president Broderick Byers said it is in the industry's best interests to provide a multitude of differentiated programs targeted to the African-American community.

"We as African-Americans support the industry far more in terms of [subscriber] penetration than non-African-Americans," he said. "I think we as an industry need to provide practical, educational and culturally nourishing programming for viewers, as well as entertainment programming. It's profitable [for operators] because at the end of the day, people keep their cable if they're getting what they want."

The CBC initially met with industry leaders last March, at which point caucus members presented their concerns as cable executives discussed the economics involved with creating new channels in the current business climate.

At the time, the caucus advocated several proposals to boost minority participation within the industry, including a call for the creation of an investment fund that would lend money to minority-owned startups in the cable-system and programming businesses.

There also would be provisions to set aside a block of as many as 10 channels in each system for minority-owned networks.

Woolfolk said those proposals and others are still on the table and could be finalized after the roundtable forum.

Also the National Cable Television Association, the catalyst for last March's meeting — which also included top executives from Comcast Cable, AOL Time Warner, Black Entertainment Television, and Discovery Networks Inc. — was not invited to participate this time around, according to Woolfolk.

"The meeting is mostly [geared] to minority owners and those people that have specifically raised the issue," he said.

Hispanic hiatus

The upcoming CBC meeting will come nearly three months after the cable community met with representatives of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to air out the industry's diversity initiatives. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus was approached by the NCTA last June to hear about the industry's diversity efforts.

"The NCTA requested the meeting as a way to begin dialog about diversity issues with the Caucus," said NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz.

While representatives from the CHC did not return repeated calls — and Dietz would not disclose what was discussed during the meeting — sources said the meeting provided the industry a chance to present its diversity case to the caucus.

"It was an opportunity to begin dialog about diversity within the industry between the industry and the Hispanic Caucus," Dietz said.

Dietz said there aren't any future meetings currently scheduled with either the Hispanic or Black Caucus, but he would not rule out future dialog between both entities or other governmental-based ethnic organizations.