News

Cable Touts Its On-Air Diversity

9/26/2004 8:00 PM Eastern

The cable industry is well above broadcast in terms of offering diverse on-screen images, but much work remains relative to diversifying its ranks behind the camera and among content decision-makers, according to a panel of programming executives.

Programmers who spoke last week at the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications’ conference here said cable networks have made a concerted effort to offer more culturally inclusive programming, rebutting criticism that primetime TV does not effectively represent various ethnicities.

“What occurs in broadcasting is a cultural malaise,” Rainbow Media Holdings CEO Josh Sapan said. “That’s why the broadcast networks are declining.”

SERVING MARKETS

One reason cable has taken the lead: Its recognition of the value of such fare to its fast-growing, multicultural subscriber base. TV One president Johnathan Rodgers said that while 10% of cable’s subscribers are African-American, they generate 20% of cable revenue.

Amy Banse, executive vice president of programming investments for Comcast Corp. — a 30% owner of TV One — added that providing diverse content makes good, competitive business sense. She pointed to the success of EchoStar Communications Corp.’s Dish Network satellite-TV service, which parlayed carriage of multi-ethnic networks into substantial subscriber growth.

“Perhaps we should have done it 10 years ago, but we’ve had an awakening that this programming is not only important for social reasons, but because it’s good business,” she said. “We don’t think of it as just the right thing to do, but as a competitive imperative.”

The impetus has to come from the top, programmers said. Lifetime Entertainment Services CEO Carole Black said she insists that producers and production studios have a diverse lineup of actors and actresses when developing movies and series programming.

Nickelodeon Television president Cyma Zarghami said she requires her group to interview a number of minorities every year for a variety of positions and maintain a list of potential minority executives for future spots.

Still, Turner Networks CEO Mark Lazarus said more needs to be done in terms of marketing outreach. “It’s become a way of business for us,” said Lazarus, adding his company this month hired Sandra Murillo Weber to head up multicultural marketing development.

“Where we are, we are via gravity, but we need to defy gravity [through] our marketing.”

Panelists said video-on-demand programming platforms could draw in new, more-inclusive fare. Sapan pointed to his company’s World Picks VOD channels as evidence that cable is far more progressive than broadcast relative to diverse programming.

Banse said Comcast would also seek more multicultural programming via VOD, although she would not rule out the potential of offering more diverse content through new linear channels.

NIX TO A LA CARTE

She was hard-pressed, though, to say how upstart multicultural networks would generate the ad revenue necessary to stay in business and develop quality programming.

The panelists also said were cable networks to be sold on an a la carte basis, it would severely limit the ability of minority-owned and targeted networks to gain a foothold in the business.

“There would never be a chance to create a level playing field where everyone will have a chance to exist,” said Rodgers.

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