Minorities and the Media: Little Ownership and Even Less Control

American culture is more diverse now than ever. For years, media regulators and observers in this country have touted the virtue and necessity of increased minority presence in the development and ownership of media content and distribution, in order to ensure that the voices of all Americans are heard.

But with the proliferation of media mergers and buyouts of minority-owned broadcast stations, the plight of minority media is more discouraging now than it was a generation ago. And almost as unsettling, the roles of minorities and women in Hollywood continue to be far less significant than those of their white male counterparts, regardless of attempts to bolster their numbers and their decision-making power in Hollywood.

Minorities and the Broadcast Medium Today

"Minority ownership" has generally been defined as any media facility in which minorities possess more than 50 percent of a firm’s equity interests or stock, and/or exercise actual control of the facility. According to a 2001 report released by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) on the state of media ownership in this country, minorities owned 449 of the 11,865 full-power commercial radio and television stations in the U.S., or 3.8 percent. Of these, 426 were commercial radio stations--comprising 4 percent of total commercial radio ownership--while the remaining 23 were commercial television stations, representing 1.9 percent of the country’s 1,288 commercial television licenses. Such figures stand in sharp contrast to the population figures as a whole for 2001, in which minorities represented nearly a third of the total US population.

As discouraging as these numbers appear, they are even more disturbing in that over half of the 426 minority-owned radio stations (248) are AM stations, which traditionally have less power and generate less advertising revenue than their FM counterparts. Many minority broadcasters blame their inability to gain sufficient capital, coupled with the skyrocketing costs required to purchase these outlets, for the low numbers of minority FM and television ownership.

The numbers for minority ownership of cable networks seem even bleaker, with only one network, Univision (the nation’s most popular Spanish-speaking network) which owns and operates 16 full-power stations in 11 of the top 15 markets in the country, classified as minority owned. (Twenty-five percent of Univision is owned by Venevision, a Venezuelan media company, while another twenty-five percent is owned by Televisa, a Mexican entertainment conglomerate.)

Minority ownership in cable television has traditionally been all but nonexistent, in spite of the fact that minorities consume premium cable services at higher rates than whites, since cable provides minorities with more opportunities than does network programming to see themselves and their experiences on television. In fact, in 2000, the NAACP gave the entire cable industry a grade of "C," based on the areas of minority employment, hiring and promotions, service deployment, procurement/vendor relations, advertising/marketing, and charitable activity.

And even Robert Johnson, former owner of BET--the only black-owned national cable channel--believes that the future of black cable ownership is bleak. In a recent Financial Times (London) article, Johnson stated that blacks must look to white money in order to scale the U.S. corporate heights. "You can’t do it as a black-owned business; there isn’t that much capital," Johnson said. "You have to do it as a white-owned business with black management."

The lack of available resources has led several minority-owned media companies to sell to or merge with mainstream media companies (including the sale of Amistad Press to Harper-Collins; Essence Communications’ decision to form a joint venture with Time Inc. in October 2000; Time Warner’s purchase of Africana.com, an Internet portal that provides information on the history, culture and contemporary condition of Africa and its Diaspora, in September 2000; and, most recently, the purchase of BET by Viacom/CBS and Telemundo by GE/NBC this year). Minority consumers have openly protested the sale of minority-owned media to mainstream companies, noting the poor manner in which minorities have historically been portrayed in the media, and expressing the need for minority media owned and operated by minorities themselves.

For example, although NBC, since purchasing Telemundo, claims to "talk to the talk" of the Hispanic community, the network is in the process of developing a series that will focus on the lives of a family of Mexican drug dealers to air on NBC, and is embarking on an effort to take Telemundo in an increasingly lighter, musical direction, with the development of shows like "The Roof," which will highlight live hip-hop dance performance and music interviews. And since being acquired by Viacom, BET has announced the cancellation of several news programs targeting the African-American community, including "Teen Summit" and "BET Tonight," in an effort to focus more on syndicated programming.

How Did We Get Here?

In 1978, the FCC issued a "Statement of Policy on Minority Ownership of Broadcast Facilities" to address what it perceived to be the "dearth" of minority broadcast ownership in this country. Of the country’s 8,500 commercial radio and television stations operating at that time, minorities controlled less than one percent, a number that contrasted sharply with minorities’ 20 percent representation in the nation’s population at that time.

Recognizing that minority participation in the nation’s broadcast industry would result in more diverse programming, the FCC pledged to issue tax credits to broadcasters that agreed to sell their stations to parties "where minority ownership is in excess of 50 percent or controlling." The commission issued 359 tax certificates to promote minority ownership before Congress repealed the program in 1995, citing instances of misuse.

Repealing the tax credits was to many minority broadcasters only the beginning of a string of events that would significantly strain their ability to own broadcast stations. In 1996, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, which removed the limits on the number of radio or television stations under common ownership nationally. The Act also relaxed the One-To-A-Market Rule, which generally prohibited common ownership of radio and television stations in a single market.

Many minority broadcasters believe that with the passage of more lenient ownership rules, the rash of media consolidation that followed actually decreased competition and diversity. For example, between 1995 and 2001, the number of individual radio station owners declined by 25 percent. In 1996, Westinghouse, the largest radio owner, owned 85 stations. In 2001, the largest owner, Clear Channel, owned 1,202 stations. Many minority broadcasters, many of whom are single-station owners, believe that it is practically impossible to compete with media conglomerates of this size for listeners, advertisers, or even on-air talent.

Minority broadcasters also believe that media consolidation has all but eliminated opportunities they need to expand their media companies. In response to a 2000 Minority Telecommunications Development Program (MTDP) survey, minority respondents noted that "under present station pricing, expansion is impossible. The Telecommunications Act eliminated the participation and expansion of small entrepreneurs."

The increase in station prices in many markets, spurred by media consolidation, has left only the largest and wealthiest stations in a position to purchase and expand their media empires. Restricted access to capital, moreover, necessary in order to develop or expand media companies, has long been a complaint of minority broadcasters, and was cited by the MTDP in 1995 as a "principal barrier to greater participation by minorities in telecommunications ownership." Consolidation can impede minority stations even when they may be the top-ranked station in the market. Black broadcasters have lost or are at risk of losing nationally syndicated programming because such programming is being offered to group owners who can reach a larger number of listeners. Losing this programming could result in a loss of ratings, advertisers, and market power.

Riding the Next Wave

According to representatives of the Black Broadcasters’ Alliance, small markets, digital multicasting, and overlooked media companies currently offer the best route for minorities to step into the broadcasting arena. With media consolidation still a major issue, minorities are being asked to consider purchasing low-power TV stations or to settle for providing programming to traditional full-power stations, as a means of gaining entry into broadcast ownership. As conventional broadcast technologies converge with new media, minority broadcasters are also strategizing new ways to develop effective uses for the new technologies to serve existing audiences as well as to attract new audience members. Many of the MTDP survey respondents indicated future plans to begin Internet radio broadcasting if they have not done so already. But the struggle facing minority broadcasters may follow them to the Internet.

According to Nielsen NetRatings, the top 20 most-frequently viewed web sites for the week ending Nov. 10, 2002, were as follows:

Using the previous definition of a minority-owned business, none of the current top 20 web sites could justifiably be classified as minority owned or operated, even though AOL Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons is an African-American. And analysis of an April 2002 report compiled by Media Metrix reveals that only one of the top 50 most-frequently visited web sites in the country, InfoSpace, a software and applications services company whose founder/CEO and several executives are Indian, could be classified as minority owned. As the numbers of minority computer users continue to increase, this burgeoning and relatively untapped new market could provide a boon for minority media owners with access to enough capital to transfer their "brick and mortar" media facilities to the Internet.

Minorities in Hollywood

The issues of racism, lack of capital, and lack of control over minority images seem to have traveled to Hollywood as well, where they plague minority writers, actors, and producers and the like. A 2000 study of the 50 top-grossing films released in 1996 revealed that 65 percent of the most prominent actors in the films were male, 80 percent were white, and 68 percent were age 40 and younger.

These numbers become less surprising, however, in light of those laboring on the other side of the camera in 1996: 85 percent of the writers, 93 percent of the directors, and 84 percent of the producers in the Hollywood film industry were male.

In 2002, The Screen Actor’s Guild released figures showing that only 22.1 percent of all roles in 2001 went to performers of color, a drop from the 2000 figure of 22.9 percent. Not surprisingly, according to the New York Times Magazine, ethnic minorities are similarly underrepresented in the Actors Guild itself, where they make up only 19 percent of the union's membership, and in the Hollywood Director’s Guild (with only 8 percent minority membership).

The lack of minority and female representation has also spread to prime-time television. According to the Director’s Guild of America, of the 826 episodes of the top 40 drama and comedy series on the air during the 2000-2001 television season, Caucasian males directed 663 (80 percent); women directed 89 (11 percent); African Americans, 27 (3 percent); Latinos, 15 (2 percent); and Asian Americans directed only 11 episodes (1 percent). Shows such as "The Drew Carey Show," "Law and Order," and "Friends" hired neither female nor minority directors for any episodes during the entire season.

Many blame the lack of minority and female representation both in front and behind the camera on the foreign markets, which are increasingly involved in the financing of film productions in Hollywood, and which prefer casts with European-American males as leading characters. In an effort to combat both the lack of minority representation and the blatant racial (and often negative) stereotyping that minority actors endure, some minorities have decided to develop their own movie houses, talent agencies, and film festivals to improve their images in Hollywood. While these tactics have had some success in raising the profile of minority media owners and content producers, an impending wave of further media consolidation could make such efforts futile, reducing still further the role of minorities on both sides of the camera.

Dana A. Rawls is a research analyst at the Center for Digital Democracy.

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