The focus of last week's NAMIC Conference here was on delivery of the new services on which cable operators have bet their futures — content-on-demand, interactive TV, new digital channels, high-speed Web access, telephony and home networking — to people of color.
But at the event's start and finish, two other themes — both involving absence — were front and center.
One was the lack of senior executives of color among many industry companies and vendors. The other was the absence of multiple widely cleared programming services aimed at urban constituencies — especially African-Americans.
National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Robert Sachs trumpeted the first point in his keynote address.
Before the week was over, the NCTA and NAMIC boards of directors had ample time to speak intimately about the subject, when they held a joint breakfast meeting for the first time.
Separately, CEOs from cable operators and programmers discussed both issues — and more — in face-to-face talks with a collection of minority advocacy group officers and other interested parties, including San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, at another gathering prior to the Walter Kaitz Foundation dinner Sept. 25.
Kaitz president and CEO Art Torres arranged the meeting and brought the idea to some of the advocacy-group representatives. Another concern raised there: the perception that diversity programming initatives are not acknowledged enough in public by groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"Underrepresentation of minorities and women on boards and in senior management is where we must focus our efforts," Sachs said. "In this respect, unfortunately, the cable industry is not unlike the rest of corporate America. But I, for one, sense a growing desire within the industry to change this."
Following Sachs's commentary, participants in a CEO roundtable echoed his call, adding that diversity among the industry's executive corps on all sides — operators, programmers, technology and other suppliers — works both socially and professionally.
And actions — or inaction — to the contrary will imperil the industry, warned Insight Communications Co. CEO Michael Willner.
"The face of New York, California and south Florida will be the face of America," he said, referring to studies which conclude that by 2050, one-half of the U.S. population will be multicultural.
"We'd better develop on that fact or we'll be out of business," he added. "Out of survival for itself and doing the right thing, cable will lead the other media and telecommunications industries in diversity. The pace of change is frustrating, but the awareness is there."
New Liberate Technologies CEO Coleman Sisson asked NAMIC to send a representative to his company's management team, to speak on diversity initiatives. A total of 30 percent of the ITV-software company's employees are Asian, while 10 percent are African-American or Latino.
NAMIC's recent employment report "got our attention … It shows how bad you've done" in senior management diversity," he added. "I want to know how we can do a better job."
Dolan: Bandwidth helps
The rollout of digital, interactive and on-demand services generates one way cable can do a better job in diversity, said Cablevision Systems Corp. chairman Charles Dolan in a later session.
"It will be accommodated by more channel capacity and entrepreneurial ventures and technology," he said. "Ethnic audiences will be served by programming created for them here, as well as programming [from] overseas."
In that environment, Dolan continued, "entry will not require entrepreneurs to be deep-pocketed."
And with such original on-demand content as Mag Rack — from Cablevision subsidiary Rainbow Media Holdings Inc. — coming into the marketplace, "not every new channel has to be a high-risk, 24/7 venture."
Nevertheless, there's a glaring gap of full-time programming choices for urban markets, "a failing of our industry," according to E! Networks CEO Mindy Herman. While Major Broadcasting Cable Network and The Word Network are out there, they are still seeking clearances in the majority of urban markets.
Herman said that E! parent Comcast Corp. is developing a new cable channel addressing urban markets and people of color, possibly using her company's resources in some fashion, but declined to elaborate in speaking with reporters later.
For his part, Def Jam Recordings founder Russell Simmons — who was honored at last Monday's NAMIC luncheon with the Mickey Leland Humanitarian Award — told Multichannel News
in an interview that he's in discussions to launch a minority-owned entertainment network. He would not provide specific details, including potential partners or a timetable for its launch.
Sources have said that Simmons and former ABC Family and Viacom Inc. executive Tracy Lawrence are developing a service called Fabulous TV, and Comcast was interested in either investing in or providing distribution for the hip-hop network.
But Simmons, who termed himself "unemployable," discounted the notion, making it clear that any network he's involved in will be minority-owned.
Meanwhile, actor-turned-programming entrepreneur Tim Reid, president of Virginia-based New Millennium Studios, wants to step in with something for middle-class African-Americans. Unless cable operators make room for services like his — owned and managed by African-Americans — such ventures won't happen, Reid said at the conference's closing session.
"I don't want a slice of the pie," he said. "I want to sell the pie.
"I want a pipeline, a black-owned channel, to my audience. What I'm fighting for is competition, competition, competition."