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Johnson: Urban TV Needs a Malone

4/18/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Robert Johnson says if a “visionary partner” could step up to support Urban TV the way then-Tele-Communications Inc. chairman John Malone had for Black Entertainment Television, it would further media diversity and obviate the need to seek a federal carriage mandate for his proposed service.

Johnson, the BET founder, was here last week pushing his proposed digital multicast partnership with Ion Television. He wants to create a new TV service aimed at African-Americans by sharing the digital-TV licenses of Ion owned-and-operated stations and programming multicast digital signals with a mix of anchor and niche programs.

Beyond broadcast spectrum, though, he said cable carriage is crucial to his proposed service’s viability. Urban TV is meant to address a “clear and present need for additional diversity” not being met by cable today, he said.

Ion’s Brandon Burgess has been looking for federal help for some time, arguing his current digital kids’ and lifestyle multicast programming is the kind of fare the commission should help to get wider dissemination.

Speaking to an audience of media executives and journalists at a Media Institute lunch on April 14, Johnson, now an investor as chairman of the RLJ companies, said the key to making a minority media play work is to have a major strategic partner like Malone. The TCI chief made a crucial early investment in BET in the late 1970s and stuck around as a mentor and personal friend for more than 20 years.

Malone’s backing became the Good Housekeeping Seal when he was seeking carriage for BET. “That conversation opened up more doors to me and BET than anything else I could have done,” Johnson said.

But he said he could also “probably name 10 people who have tried to get carriage on cable systems for minority [channels] and cannot. So, the history is not there of being open and willing to embrace a minority channel for whatever reason.”

“The issue is how you get the signal to the customer. The one pipeline that controls this is the cable system,” Johnson said. “Cable is the diversity cornucopia. If you now start closing it down, you simply, in my opinion, take away from the true benefit of the government allowing this unique and exciting technological platform of cable and satellite to grow.”

National Cable & Telecommunications Association vice president of communications Brian Dietz responded that cable programming is very diverse.

“Cable now offers dozens of channels that serve ethnic, foreign and minority audiences and will continue to provide the diverse programming that viewers want,” he said in response to Johnson’s speech. “The Urban TV concept should be treated no different than the hundreds of other existing networks that are competing for carriage on cable systems.

In his first public statement on the issue, National Association of Broadcasters president David Rehr used the Urban TV multicasting proposal as an opportunity to swipe at cable.

“We don’t think the giant cable companies like Comcast ought to be allowed to strip out or block multicast broadcast programming for competitive reasons,” Rehr said in an interview. “I’m not familiar with all of the details of the Johnson proposal. It sounds intriguing, and I’m sure the NAB board will be interested in hearing more.”

Johnson said his vision for Urban TV would be as something like a mall, with anchor stores that draw traffic to smaller, niche programming. He also likened it to an out-of-town theater circuit for would-be Broadway shows.

“I assure you that some of the shows on this network could be a version of what New Haven is to Broadway,” he said. “We will find some programmer or some concept and the networks will see it or another station group will see it or a syndicator will see it and off they will go to do something on another station.”

But nobody will see it, Johnson suggested, unless he can get cable systems to carry it.

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