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Cable operators received mediocre scores on hiring and other support of minorities as the industry became the latest targeted by the NAACP.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's report card on the industry is similar to reviews of the business practices in other industries. Unlike recent initiatives aimed at the broadcast networks, though, it was not based on programming content. Instead, the NAACP focused on advancement opportunities for cable firms' African-American employees, reliance on black-owned vendors and deployment of cable infrastructure in black neighborhoods.

The group assessed an overall grade of C, saying the industry "is not very responsive to the African-American community in any category."

"Cable on the whole, like much of the industry in America, has promoted few people of color," said NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. Blacks "seem to be faced with a glass ceiling and nonchalant attitude."

The group said consumers should consider other options where companies have poor records. Blacks spend more than $3 billion on cable TV, and, therefore, Mfume said, subscribers of cable companies receiving grades of C or lower should consider switching to satellite service or rely solely on local broadcast stations.

Minorities "should look at their power as consumers," he said. The NAACP and 55 other survey sponsors will urge them to seek alternatives "until the cable industry is willing to show some reciprocity."

Among the cable study's findings:

  • Most firms are performing well when it comes to hiring entry-level workers and even skilled technicians. But opportunities trail off dramatically on the way to the boardroom.
  • Few are contracting with significant numbers of African-American vendors.
  • Although there seems no rate disparity, including on advanced services, operators are slow to deploy new services in black neighborhoods.

Getting a B were Prime Cable, which is being sold to Comcast, and Charter Communications. AT & T, MediaOne and Comcast each got a B-. Time Warner and Cablevision got a C+; Cox and Adelphia, a C-.

Insight Communications received a D, which President Michael Willner characterized as unfair. The NAACP asked companies to volunteer figures as of Dec. 31, 1998, but rapidly growing Insight had bought two-thirds of its systems just 60 days before that, inheriting the practices of the previous owners. "They did this during a year when we had very little control of most of our assets," Willner said.

Systems that Insight has owned for several years do much better, he insisted.

Nevertheless, he agreed with the NAACP's basic premise. "The industry needs improvement. Most of the companies are committed to do that. When they've done this in other industries, they had an impact."

The National Cable Television Association said the industry's efforts have been better than the NAACP study implies. Employment of all minorities in the cable industry, the group noted, has increased for the past five years, reaching 31% of the total cable work force in 1999, compared with 26% in the national labor force.

However, NCTA President Robert Sachs acknowledged that the study also shows "how much remains to be done."

"For the past couple of years, one of AT & T/TCI's top priorities has been to develop and maintain a strong and diverse work force," said Tracy Hollingsworth, spokeswoman for AT & T Broadband & Internet Services.

African-American Thomas D. Broadwater, president and CEO of Broadserv, which provides broadband installation services, said that, although operators are generally showing good intent by developing minority outreach programs, there has to be more follow-through. "The missing element is the dedication of commitment by CEOs to make substantive improvements. It's one thing to write a policy; it's quite another to dig in and identify high-potential players and build solid vendor partnerships." He credited his 8-month-old company's early success with its ability to link up with a major cable firm that gives priority to minority supplier programs.

Mfume is concerned about the pending mergers of AT & T-MediaOne and AOL-Time Warner. The NAACP isn't opposing them outright but wants the FCC to make sure the new companies don't back away from minority initiatives and are held to timely schedules for broadband rollout.

The report card is part of the NAACP's Economic Reciprocity Initiative, a campaign to target specific industries' hiring and economic practices toward African-Americans. (It does not assess other minority groups.)