Minority Ownership of Major Media Going Extinct

For decades, civil rights groups and others have expressed concern about the shocking lack of ownership of major media outlets by persons of color. The numbers of newspapers and TV stations owned by non-white companies has always been appallingly low (and these figures have become even more dismal since the passage of the deregulatory 1996 Telecommunications Act). But increasing media concentration and a new FCC policy on the Internet will likely make any hope of greater ownership diversity well nigh impossible.

While a consortium of groups representing civil rights concerns have been meeting with broadcast network officials to discuss concerns over representation and employment, there has been little focus on issues related to control and ownership. As a result, despite their growth in the population, persons of color may continue to play, at best, "supporting" roles when it comes to making decisions about how the media system should effectively reflect their interests. Ironically, although there is no longer any physical limitation to the number of TV channels or new digital services that can be created, tight media industry control is ushering in a new era of scarcity. So while there should be new minority-owned local and national channels, it is unlikely to happen. Instead we will see an extension of white-owned conglomerates controlling handpicked channels to serve African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos and others as an extension of the commercial marketplace.

Two major networks-BET and Telemundo-have recently been swallowed up by conglomerates-Viacom/CBS and GE/NBC respectively. If Hispanics wanted any proof that, despite their protestations, NBC views them in stereotypic terms, one has only to look at a recent report in the show-biz trade publication Electronic Media. In a prominent three-page color ad spread, NBC touted its control over Telemundo and the new mun2 channel "created for young Latino viewers." NBC's new motto claimed proudly in boldface type: "We speak the language. We live the culture." But how NBC truly understands the Latino audience is best observed while reading an accompanying EM news article about the Hispanic market. NBC's commitment to the culture, it turns out, includes a "planned mid-season replacement show, 'Kingpin,' [which] is an hour-long drama centered on a family of Mexican drug dealers." We also learn that "NBC aims to foster new talent by hosting open-mic nights for ethnic stand-up comics and by producing showcases for actors of color." All of this is an attempt by NBC to cash in on what people in the entertainment industry say is one of the "hot" markets-Hispanic-focused programming. It is expected that the top 10 advertisers will spend $286 million alone targeting them in 2003.

Hope that there will be greater diversity and creative freedom to establish cable channels is also now threatened, due to industry mega-mergers like the recent AT&T and Comcast marriage. Comcast and AOL Time Warner, for example, intend to exploit their cable monopoly clout and establish new national and local channels focused on minority audiences. These channels will be firmly under their control, reducing the possibility of independent, alternative fare.

For example, according to trade reports, Comcast will soon unveil "services targeting the Hispanic and African-American communities…." According to Multichannel News, Comcast has insisted on "operational control" of these channels, including one backed by rap music notable Russell Simmons and another by actor-producer Tim Reid. Comcast is also said to be in discussions with GE/NBC about co-investing in a number of new Spanish-channels. NBC swallowed up Telemundo this year, the second largest Spanish-language cable service.

AOL Time Warner, the country's second largest cable company, plans to establish a new local Spanish-language cable news channel in New York. Last March it launched "Bay News 9 en Espanol" in Tampa, Florida. AOLTW may also create several Spanish-language local cable weather channels as well.

These cable giants will also be able to dominate online distribution as well, since cable will be a major provider of high-speed Internet service, Both Comcast and AOLTW have successfully lobbied the FCC to eliminate any requirements that would require them to operate their broadband pipes in a manner that might permit new minority ventures-whether commercial or noncommercial-to succeed.

Unless there is greater activism on media issues, it is likely that the pattern of control today by a few major conglomerates over the US media system will continue into the digital age. And hopes for greater diversity of ownership by communities of color will fade out.

Jeff Chester is the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

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