Bob Johnson, founder of BET and currently chairman of RLJ Companies, is trying to team with Ion Media on a new African-American focused network employing some of the multicast channels of Ion’s 60 stations, including in all of the top 20 media markets. He and Ion Media Networks chairman Brandon Burgess have asked the Federal Communications Commission for mandatory cable carriage of the channels that would carry the proposed Urban TV, arguing that it furthers the FCC’s mandate to promote diversity. Cable operators have expressed concern about the Urban TV proposal and extending what they see as an already-tenuous precedent of mandatory cable carriage of a TV station’s primary digital signals. Johnson spoke with Multichannel News Washington bureau chief John Eggerton last week about the issues involved. An edited transcript follows:
MCN: Why should Urban TV get government help?
Bob Johnson: I think that BET, TV One, every African-American entrepreneur trying to start a business has asked the Congress, mayors of cities with African-American populations and the FCC to encourage cable operators to require greater diversity.
Cable television has not provided the kind of diversity specifically to serve the African-American community and I think we have all been in that situation of asking the FCC to provide more diversity. There is a problem in the fact that the gatekeepers, in this case the cable operators, aren’t providing sufficient diversity for Hispanics, women, gays, lesbians and others.
I feel that what we were doing is consistent with what African-American entrepreneurs have done since television and radio became available.
MCN: What about the issue of technological constraints on system capacity, which means somebody has to go?
BJ: The technological capacity of a shared digital license does not limit channel capacity [Urban is proposing to share the digital licenses of Ion Media’s 60 TV stations and program them with Urban-targeted programming.]
In fact, today, every broadcaster if they were to broadcast in HDTV, as they have the right to do, operators would have to carry it. A split digital feed takes up no more capacity than an HDTV feed. So, there is not a threat that channel capacity will be reduced and therefore operators will have to make a choice between BET and Urban TV or Urban TV and TV One.
That is just a scare tactic by the cable operators and something that is not true. I think the fact is that there is plenty of room in a 500-channel universe for more than one or two or three minority-oriented channels.
MCN: I guess it shouldn’t surprise you from a competitive standpoint that [African-American targeted network] TV One would oppose this since they argue that requiring cable to carry you could mean knocking TV One out of the lineup?
BJ: It does surprise me. That’s how TV One came to be. Asking for carriage and insisting that cable operators provide more diversity and give TV One more carriage and that BET was not enough and there was room for more than two channels serving the 30 million African-Americans in 8-9 million African-American households who spend an inordinate amount of money on cable. African-Americans have the highest penetration of basic, the highest penetration of pay per view than any population group in the country.
To say that cable can’t afford to offer more channels is crazy. And to assume that because another channel comes about that they are going to drop BET makes the case that we need FCC action to get carriage. If we’re the last added and the first dropped, there is something wrong with the system.
Taking their suggestion of going system by system to get carriage is just not going to happen. Neither one of us could survive had we not been putting pressure on cable operators to carry us and urging the government and city official to put us in franchises. So, there is a problem. I was disappointed that they would try to make this a competition between BET and TV One and Urban Television. We should be joining forces and saying we need more carriage, not less carriage.
We need more minority programming, not less minority programming, and we shouldn’t accept the fact that because one of us is added another one gets shut down.
MCN: Have you gotten any sense from the FCC of when, if or whether they are going to approve it?
BJ: We made the rounds with some of the commissioners and said we think this is an innovative use of digital technology and encourages diversity and encourages minority ownership and will add to diversity at the local level. When they will take it up — probably not until the FCC is fully constituted.
For more from this interview, see Multichannel.com.