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Johnson Looking For Support for Urban TV

Cable pioneer Bob Johnson said Tuesday he was still looking for a visionary partner along the lines of cable vet John Malone to back his and Ion Television's Urban TV proposal, which he said was meant to address a "clear and present need for additional diversity," one that was not being met by cable today.

Speaking to an audience of media executives and journalists at a Media Institute lunch in Washington Tuesday, Johnson, now chairman of the RLJ companies, with investments in banking, financial services, gaming and more, said that the key to making a minority media play work is to have a major strategic partner like Malone, who put up the first dollars for BET and stuck around as a mentor and personal friend for over 20 years.

Malone's backing became the Good Housekeeping Seal when he was seeking carriage for BET, he said. "That conversation opened up more doors to me at BET than anything else I could have done."

But he said he could also "probably name 10 people who have tried to get carriage on cable systems for minority [channels] and cannot. So, the history is not that of being open and willing to embrace a minority channel for whatever reason."

He said Malone put BET on TCI systems not because the government forced him to, but because "he saw the business benefit.... If more industries had their version of John Malone, there would be more successful African American business people across the spectrum," he said, to general applause.

"The issue is how do you get the signal to the customer. The one pipeline that controls this is the cable system," said Johnson. "Cable is the diversity cornucopia. If you now start closing it down, you simply, in my opinion, take away from the true benefit of the government allowing this unique and exciting technological platform of cable and satellite to grow."

NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz countered that cable's diversity cornucopia is still brimming over.

"Cable created the entire appetite for diversity in television programming and there is more programming diversity on cable than there ever has been," he said in response to Johnson's speech. "Cable now offers dozens of channels that serve ethnic, foreign and minority audiences and will continue to provide the diverse programming that viewers want. The Urban TV concept should be treated no different than the hundreds of other existing networks that are competing
for carriage on cable systems."

Johnson has been pitching his proposed African American-targeted programming service for awhile now. It would involve getting the FCC's permission for minority investors to buy interests in Ion TV station licenses, and securing carriage, either in the marketplace or via FCC mandate, on cable systems. He has said that without voluntary cable carriage, the shared license partnership would not be viable and the FCC would need to step in to mandate it.

And while there still is a John Malone in the satellite distribution businesses, Johnson told B&C in an interview last month that satellite carriage alone would not be enough to support the business model.

"It would not alter the bandwidth capacity of our nation's cable systems," he said of cable's carriage of Urban TV. "It would not be an unauthorized taking, or, in my opinion, a detriment to TV One, to BET, to C-SPAN or any of the other fine channels that exist on cable. It would simply be an awakening of more diversity, more minority ownership, and more opportunity for people who would never get that chance."

Johnson pointed out that most of the government legacy licenses, including TV stations and cable franchises, were secured at a time when minorities didn't have the price of admission to "government granted opportunities," or if they did, often did not have the access to capital to run them.

He said he has simply "joined with Ion TV to ask the FCC to ask cable operators to carry a shared digital signal that puts on diverse programming and is operated under diversified ownership." He said he couldn't come up with a compelling argument why that is a detriment to cable's economic interest.

Johnson said his vision for Urban TV would be something like a mall, with anchor stores that draw traffic to smaller, niche programming. He also likened it to an out-of-town theater circuit for would-be Broadway shows. "I assure you that some of the shows on this network could be a version of what New Haven is to Broadway. We will find some programmer or some concept and the networks will see it or another station group will see it or a syndicator will see it and off they will go to do something on another station."

Returning to address the Media Institute after a nine-year hiatus, Johnson pointed out some familiar faces in the crowd, including former FCC Chairman Dick Wiley, saying they were faces he "grew up with" and conceding it was "a little bit like coming home to argue in support of things you opposed" and "to join hands with the broadcasters, whom I hated when I was at the NCTA, and to appeal to the FCC, "which we always thought meddled in our business more than they should have."

John Eggerton
John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.