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Bob Johnson Sets Sights On New Urban Cable Network

Ion Media, which boasts the nation’s largest station group, is proposing to team with BET founder Robert Johnson's RLJ Companies on an urban-targeted network, Urban Televsiion, which would operate on the majority of Ion TV stations’ digital multicast channels. The network’s fate would appear to hinge on whether the FCC grants mandatory cable carriage (so-called must-carry status) to the digital channels carrying the network, which they argue is crucial to its success.

Johnson made his billions with an African-American targeted programming service, BET, that became a must-have for most cable operators even without a government mandate. He eventually sold it to Viacom. The companies are promising informational and issue-focused programming targeted to African Americans, though with the caveat that they "will retain the flexibility to adapt its format to changing viewer needs and interests and other programming that is available in the marketplace."

Ion already airs kids and lifestyle programming networks on some of its multicast channels. Those are the channels that digital broadcasting technology allows TV station owners to program along with their primary channels.

According to a copy of the filing obtained by B&C, Johnson's Urban Television is seeking permission to buy share-time licenses from Ion allowing it to broadcast 24/7 on Ion's digital channels while Ion also broadcasts its existing digital station signals in the 42 TV markets where the channel will run, including New York, Chicago, and Boston and a host of other major markets (Ion has stations in all 20 of the top 20 markets). Ion would hold an attriibutable 49% interest in the new network and leases while Urban would hold a controlling 51%, according to the agreement.

Ion and Johnson are seeking government help in the form of mandatory cable carriage status for the urban multicast channels. The FCC does not require cable operators to carry multicast channels, but FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has proposed mandated carriage for digital spectrum leased to minorities and women and programmed as separate channels, calling it a way to encourage programming diversity.

But Urban and Ion are pitching the Urban programmed channels as "new stations" already warranting must-carry status. "In order to avoid disputes with MVPDs that would undermine any realistic opportunity of Urban’s fledgling station group to survive, the parties respectfully request that the Commission confirm, concurrent with grant of this application, that Urban’s stations would be entitled to carriage under the Commission’s rules."

And since the “new station” determination is key to must-carry, which is key to the network’s success, there are multiple ownership implications that will limit the distribution of that network, at least on TV stations’ digital channels.

Ion actually owns or operates some 60 stations, but the Urban channel will not air in its smaller markets. That is because they confined their request for leases to markets where Ion’s interest in those “new stations” won't violate FCC limits on station ownership in one market.

Either side can back out if the FCC does not grant must-carry.

The Urban model more closely parallels the recommendations of the FCC's advisory committee for "diversity in the digital age," which has also recommended that the FCC authorize broadcasters to lease digital spectrum to qualified applicants, effectively creating a new, "

S class" of licensed TV station as proposed by Media Access Projec


The idea is to promote diversity of voices while allowing economically disadvantaged businesses to run stations without having to put up the capital to start a station from scratch or buy one outright, both of which are increasingly tough given the economic slide. Compensation for broadcasters would be determined by baseball style arbitration.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has proposed allowing small and distressed businesses (which could include women and minorities) to lease digital spectrum and program the channels, which would also get must-carry rights, but did not propose licensing the stations. Neither proposal has been adopted, however, and Martin is expected to exit the commission by mid-January.

Ion's role in the minority programing initiative is part of Ion's three-pronged broadcast strategy,

which B&C reported on last month

when Ion Media Chairman Brandon Burgess outlined it in a speech to The Media Institute. The other two prongs are HDTV and mobile Video.

With multicast channels for children, promoting healthy lifestyles and now, minority programming, Ion has covered most of the public-interest bases in its effort to get multichannel video providers to carry the channel or the government to see the public interest in mandating carriage.

That last prong of that strategy, mobile video, got a boost Wednesday with the announcement that the

Advanced Television Systems Committee had approved a preliminary mobile video standard