Q&A: Bob Johnson

Bob Johnson, founder of BET and current chairman of RLJ Companies, is trying to team with Ion Media on a new African-American-targeted network employing some of the multicast channels of Ion's 60 stations, including those in all of the top 20 markets.

Johnson knows a bit about programming startups, having parlayed a niche network into a fortune estimated at $1 billion.

Johnson and Ion Media Networks Chairman Brandon Burgess have asked the FCC for mandatory cable carriage of the channels that would carry the proposed Urban Television network, arguing that it furthers the FCC's mandate to promote diversity.

Enter TV One, the already established African-American-oriented cable and satellite network, which has asked the FCC to reject the Ion/Urban proposal as manipulation of the system and a threat to its own carriage. TV One told the FCC it was not opposed to the “manner” in which Urban TV was going about its effort to reach an underserved minority viewing population. TV One's objection was that multicast must-carry was the wrong route; it used terms like “obfuscate,” “eviscerate” and “regulatory manipulation.”

Cable operators have also expressed concern about the Urban TV proposal extending what they see as an already-tenuous precedent of mandatory cable carriage of a TV station's primary digital signals.

The divide among minority-backed and -targeted programming initiatives comes against an ever-brightening spotlight on the issue of diversity. President Obama has made media diversity one of the planks in his media policy, and acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps has said the commission is laying the legal and factual groundwork for diversity initiatives that can be furthered by his presumed successor, Julius Genakowski, a friend, adviser and former classmate of the president.

In an exclusive interview, Johnson talks with B&C's John Eggerton about what he says are scare tactics by the cable industry, the precedent by all sides for seeking government carriage help, and whether he would try taking the network straight to cable or satellite if the FCC rejects the must-carry proposal.

Why should Urban TV get government help?

I think that BET, TV One, every African-American entrepreneur trying to start a business has asked the Congress, mayors of cities with African-American populations, and the FCC to encourage cable operators to require greater diversity.

Cable television has not provided the kind of diversity specifically to serve the African-American community, and I think we have all been in that situation. There is a problem in the fact that the gatekeepers, in this case the cable operators, aren't providing sufficient diversity for Hispanics, women, gays, lesbians and others. I feel that what we were doing was consistent with what African-Americans have done since television and radio became available.

It shouldn't surprise you from a competitive standpoint that TV One would oppose this, since they argue that requiring cable to carry you could mean knocking TV One out of the lineup.

It does surprise me. That's how TV One came to be—asking for carriage and insisting that cable operators provide more diversity.

To say that cable can't afford to offer more channels is crazy. And to assume that because another channel comes about that they are going to drop BET, makes the case that we need FCC action to get carriage. If we're the last added and the first dropped, there is something wrong with the system.

Neither one of us could survive had we not been putting pressure on cable operators to carry us and urging the government and city officials to put us in franchises.

So, there is a problem. I was disappointed that they would try to make this a competition between BET and TV One and Urban Television. We should be joining forces and saying we need more carriage, not less. We shouldn't accept the fact that because one of us is added, another one gets shut down.

What about the issue of technological constraints on system capacity, which means somebody has to go?

The technological capacity of a shared digital license does not limit channel capacity. [Urban is proposing to share the digital licenses of Ion Media's 60 TV stations and program them with Urban-targeted programming.] In fact, if every broadcaster were to broadcast in HD, as they have the right to do, cable operators would have to carry it. A split digital feed takes up no more capacity than an HD feed.

So, there is no threat that channel capacity will be reduced, [or that] cable operators will have to make a choice between BET and Urban TV or Urban TV and TV One. That is just a scare tactic by the cable operators.

Have you gotten any sense from the FCC of when, if or whether they are going to approve it?

We made the rounds with some of the commissioners; we said this is an innovative use of digital technology that encourages diversity and encourages minority ownership, and will add to diversity at the local level. When will they take it up? Probably not until the FCC is fully constituted.

You must have been encouraged by Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps' announcement that he was already teeing up the legal underpinning for promoting diversity for his successor.

I think he is absolutely right about the need for more diversity. It makes no sense to keep this genie in the bottle because people make the argument that it is going to hurt someone else or deprive the cable operators of their capacity.

The reason we went digital was to provide access to the airwaves for other kinds of things. Once you go digital, you have the ability to provide more and more content, more diversified content. So, from a technological standpoint it makes no sense whatsoever to authorize the creation of digital capacity, to create that engineering marvel, and then say we are just going to bottle it up because we want the cable operators to continue to be the bottleneck. That makes no sense, and I think the acting chairman recognizes that.

Is there some date by which the FCC needs to act or Urban TV is a no-go?

No. Brandon [Burgess] and I are committed to this. The joint venture is simply waiting on the FCC to do the authorization. But, again, if you have a bottleneck acting as a bottleneck, it begs for government action.

If the FCC does not approve it, would you try to go straight to cable with Urban TV?

Without must-carry, you can’t do it. No, I wouldn’t do it as a cable channel. I’ve done that and I know how difficult it was. Fortunately, I had the support of John Malone. Well, John Malone’s not a cable operator anymore and the cable operators today, as Alfred [Liggins, TV One Chairman] points out, aren’t chomping at the bit to carry black programming.

I know how difficult it was to get BET launched, and other channels that we tried to launch. And I know how many African-American [channels] failed or simply didn’t try because they go to a cable operator and the operator says: “Well, I don’t make that corporate decision.” You’ve got to go system-by-system. And if [the] system manager doesn’t want to carry you, too bad, [they’re] not going to carry you.

You don’t have the leverage power of broadcasters who can trade off their retransmission rights for carriage, and you don’t have the leverage of some of the big movie companies and entertainment companies saying if you want to keep carrying MTV or VH1 or Fox programming, you’ve got to carry my other programming. So, if you are going to get diversity at the minority level in television, it absolutely requires government carriage and a partnership with a local broadcaster.

I’m not saying mandatory must-carry without having the partnership like we are doing with broadcasting. I’m talking about mandatory must-carry for a broadcasting outlet working in cooperation with a minority entrepreneur.

So, you are not championing general multicast must-carry.
Yes, [must-carry] that furthers a diversity initiative and one that does not take up any additional capacity.

How about doing it as a satellite channel?

I will definitely talk to John if we get this on the air.

How about a standalone satellite channel if you don’t get must-carry?

You don’t get the distribution that you would [otherwise] get. Most of John’s viewers are in rural areas. John’s product costs a lot more than cable, and you have the issue of trying to provide his product in multi-family homes and other places where most of your urban and minority consumers live.
So, DirecTV is a great option for people in certain areas. It is not necessarily a great option for lower- and moderate-income people in urban markets.

Can you do this network multicast without mandatory carriage?

No. We just converted from analog to digital, and everybody in the government was out buying converter boxes for people who didn’t have them. And if you are cable, you’re OK, and if you’re satellite, you’re OK, but if you don’t have [either] your not going to get a signal. If we go with a digital feed and ask people to buy a digital box and we don’t get cable carriage, this doesn’t exist. So no, you can’t do it without mandatory carriage, and if the cable operators choose not to carry us because, as Alfred suggests, they are only going to carry one or two minority channels, you’re dead in the water.

Clearly this argues for mandatory carriage because, as Alfred has already said, if they carry Urban Television, they drop us. So, you have to have a mandate.

E-mail comments tojeggerton@reedbusiness.com

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.