Comcast's Network Gatekeeper

Comcast Cable has begun accepting proposals for 10 new independent, minority-owned and operated channels that the nation's largest cable operator plans to launch over the next eight years as part of the merger conditions agreed to in its deal for control of NBCU Universal. David Jensen, the Philadelphia-based MSO's vice president of content acquisition, recently talked to Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about Comcast's strategies in securing multicultural networks. An Transcript follows:

MCN: Do you feel that you will get a substantial number of networks that meet your criteria for the 10 multicultural-based networks you're looking to launch?

David Jensen: I think there are enough out there. We've already been talking to a lot of channel proponents because these [memorandum of understanding] commitments were made last year in connection with the NBCU transaction. Even before we started this request for proposals, people knew they could come talk to us.
We've been hearing from a lot of people and we've heard some extremely creative and exciting ideas. I'm encouraged that we'll not only be able to fulfill all of the commitments but fulfill them with channels that are exciting, high-value channels.

MCN: Can you provide any specifics on those who have approached you with network proposals? 

DJ: I'd love to tell you some of the names that we've been talking to because they are very famous people and very high-ranking Hollywood and creative types that are household names in both the Hispanic and African-American category - but I think I shouldn't. If you're thinking was that we'd have a hard time filling this, or that the channels would be weak ideas, that won't be the case. Just judging by the people we've heard from already before the process really gets started, we're going to do really well.

MCN: Are you considering networks that have been announced or are up and running - HBCU Net or Byron Allen's six HD services, for example - or are you focusing strictly on as-yet-developed networks?

DJ: The requirement is just that we launch networks that we aren't currently carrying. It doesn't have to be newly created - just ones that we're not currently distributing. So the ones you mentioned would definitely qualify. We're also talking to existing channels that we don't currently carry and talking to proponents to new channels that you have not heard of.

MCN: From your perspective, what value will these new networks bring to Comcast and its subscribers?

DJ: Tom, you've been keeping an eye on Comcast for a long time in the diversity space and I think you realize we're committed to the diversity of programming voices, and we've been working very hard to increase the diversity of channels that we offer before that transaction was a glimmer in anybody's eye. We've done in a lot in the Spanish space and a lot in the non-Spanish space. We see this as a continuation of our commitment to the diversity of programming voices rather than any kind of new initiative. 

I will say that the scale of what we're talking about is pretty big and ambitious. We've committed to launch 10 independent new channels in eight years - that's about the number of independent channels we launched in the eight years before the NBC transaction. We'll launch those all in the diversity space as well as general market channels on top of that. 

MCN: Some general-entertainment networks have expressed concerns that your plans might mean they'll lose channel space on Comcast lineups. Is that concern legitimate?

I can certainly see why they may have a concern about it, because bandwidth is not infinite. But on the other hand, all operators are working hard to increase the bandwidth they have available. So I don't think the launch of any channel or handful of channels will meaningfully shut out anybody. I don't think an effort to be more inclusive ends up being more exclusive, because we're working on bandwidth-husbandry strategies that will keep our bandwidth expanding and allow us to keep expanding our video offerings.

MCN: Does the search for independent multicultural networks preclude Comcast from potentially developing diverse networks and programming on its own?

DJ: It doesn't stop us from developing programming resources that are outside this process. For example, one of the things that we're required to do under the MOU is for NBC to launch a Spanish-language multicast with their library of programming. That's obviously something that we'll be doing as part of this process.
Outside of that, there's nothing stopping Comcast or NBCU or any other large groups from launching content in the ethnic space. I've been hearing rumors about a bunch of channels coming from some of the larger media companies - the 2010 Census information has really focused people very sharply on the opportunity in all these demographics, including Hispanic.

MCN: How heavily will you weigh networks that have some executives with cable experience as leaders as you make your final decisions?

I think the experience definitely plays a part but I don't think it has to be cable experience - I think you can be a highly experienced satellite executive or Hollywood or ÿ lm executive and run a channel. ... But the channel ideas need to be well-thought-out, well-planned, well-financed and well-programmed. Also, they shouldn't hope to be successful just because of a Comcast deal. This isn't winning the Powerball lottery; it's just getting a head start in distribution. Any channel that's going to be successful has to be able to stand up and be successful outside the Comcast footprint as well.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.