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Media, Civil Rights Groups Voice Support for Urban TV

Ion Media and Robert Johnson's Urban Television have a number of supporters, at least in principle, for their proposal to create a minority-targeted over-the-air TV network by programming multicast must-carry channels and trying to get the FCC to grant those stations must-carry status.

In separate filings with the FCC, Media Access Project/Common Cause and nearly a dozen civil rights groups weighed in on the proposal.

In their filing, MAP and Common Cause said that what amounts to a shared licensing scheme was a creative initiative and could help boost broadcast diversity. They said the proposal is an improvement on time brokerage agreements because the programmer--Urban, headed by BET founder Johnson--would have an ownership interest in the station licenses. 

Rainbow/PUSH founder Jesse Jackson has complained that efforts to boost minority participation via leasing arrangements without boosting actual minority ownership were akin to media sharecropping. Rainbow/PUSH was one of the groups supporting the Ion/Urban proposal in the FCC filing.

But MAP/Common Cause's support was conditioned on a number of things, including assurances Ion, which will be compensated by Urban for its use/stake in the multicast channels, does not exert excessive control for access to its channels or charge too high a fee.

They also want the FCC to establish benchmarks for public affairs programming. Urban has promised at lest seven hours a week, but the groups want the FCC to better spell out the programming requirements, including finding that a lineup devoted primarily to infomercials wouldn't cut it.

In fact, they said that the application should be denied unless those issues were addressed.

In their filing, assembled by the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, has no such reservations, saying they enthusiastically supported the proposal and that granting it "will dramatically increase diversity," saying it would be the most historic moment for African Americans in broadcasting history.

"Never did we dream that in our lifetimes we might have an opportunity to witness this, the birth of the nation’s first over-the-air African American television network," said the groups. "But this year, so many things once thought impossible are taking place," they added, an implicit reference to the election of Barack Obama as president.

They argued that the proposal would constitute ownership rather than leasing, would put DTV spectrum to more efficient use (one of the FCC's key goals), would "stabilize asset values" of stations by attracting new audiences and ad dollars, would "resolve the present crisis in African American television created by the near-abandonment of African American-targeted programming by the six largest English language television networks," and would boost public participation in the media.

The last is a reference to Urban's "content mall" programming model whereby the public will be able to produce, broadcast and own programs.

The groups, which included Rainbow/PUSH, the NAACP, the Urban League and the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters, urged the commission to act quickly. "What is the cause of death of really good ideas at the FCC? Old Age. How many groundbreaking ideas have sat, and sat, and sat on the 8th floor waiting for a vote? Please, not this time. After the record closes, the Commission should schedule a vote immediately, address any fair questions raised in other comments, and grant the applications for assignment of license from ION to Urban."