Remote Control – The American Prospect
In October, hip-hop artist Curtis James Jackson III, better known as 50 Cent, went after a rival mogul on Instagram. His target wasn’t a fellow artist, but Brian Roberts, the billionaire CEO of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company. Comcast had just announced it was kicking 50 Cent’s show Power off the cable giant’s system. “This is the guy fu**ing up (Power) over at @Comcast,” 50 Cent wrote, showing a picture of a grinning Roberts wearing a wrinkled golf shirt.
A few weeks later, Sean “Diddy” Combs joined the pile-on, despite having worked with Comcast for distribution of his now-defunct cable channel, Revolt TV. “Comcast spends billions of dollars on content networks every year,” Combs wrote in a statement, “but just a few million go to African American owned networks.” Combs was soon joined by Latino Hollywood director Robert Rodriguez, owner of the El Rey network, as well as a black former Comcast employee turned programming entrepreneur named Paula Madison, who runs The Africa Channel.
The ringleader of this revolt is Byron Allen, a black comedian turned media entrepreneur who has pursued a multiyear, $20 billion lawsuit against Comcast for racial discrimination and refusing to negotiate in good faith with minority owners. Allen’s empire is more eclectic and diverse than his allies’; it includes The Weather Channel, among other properties. Allen is using a specific law to challenge Comcast’s behavior, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, America’s oldest civil rights statute, which guarantees all citizens the right to make and enforce contracts. In response, in a case recently argued before the Supreme Court, Comcast worked with the Trump administration to weaken interpretation of the law.
The issue for all of these players is the same. Comcast is the only on-ramp for pay-TV content to more than 20 million households, many of them African American and Latino. It spends tens of billions of dollars to acquire or make this content. Yet virtually none of that money goes to black-owned media channels. Comcast, in other words, is a monopoly, and it uses its monopoly power to harm black and brown media owners.
Over the last ten years, the problem of monopoly has changed from a niche concern of academics and scribblers to a mainstream political issue. There is for the first time in 40 years a genuine ideological contest about the political importance of market control, and now black entertainment moguls are getting in on the fight.
But for black businesspeople, concentrated corporate power in media is especially charged. Media is a special industry, as the stories we tell ourselves shape the imagery and iconography of who we are. Concentrated media ownership places the means to shape that imagery of black Americans into the hands of white financiers. But in addition, for black Americans, monopoly power combines with lack of capital as twin barriers to economic inclusion. Even if media markets were open to all comers, blacks have less access to bank financing. And because of this lack of capital and a highly concentrated corporate system, black politics has become intimately tied, and in many cases dependent, on the very monopolies oppressing black communities and business leaders.
Allen’s case and the associated battles with Comcast touch on every third rail in American politics: dominance of corporate monopolies, Donald Trump’s racism, Barack Obama’s failures, and even the failure of Reconstruction to make black America whole with “40 acres and a mule.”
It is the story of black businessmen and the oppressiveness of corporate power, in microcosm.
BYRON ALLEN is a master showman, and he loves a good fight. He peppers his rhetoric with intentionally inflammatory arguments, like calling Comcast “nothing more than a bully” and accusing rivals of engaging in “economic genocide.” There’s a sprinkle of P.T. Barnum and Huey Long in the man; he’s kind of a tycoon populist. On the popular radio show The Breakfast Club, Allen boasted that his net worth of $300 million is “not a lot of money.” He is aware of his blackness, of both the racism and opportunity that engenders; one of his heroes is Motown impresario Berry Gordy, and he name-drops Coretta Scott King.
But Allen’s other heroes are Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Rupert Murdoch, and Ted Turner; more tycoon than populist. After pointing out that civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League take large sums of money from Comcast, he likes to mention that he tried to buy the Urban League back from Comcast, making a quarter-million-dollar donation of his own. He’s fully willing to work the system to his benefit, no matter where that leads him.
Allen’s story is extraordinary, and in his retelling, full of nothing but hustle, grit, and winning. His mother took him from a decrepit and riot-torn Detroit to Los Angeles. To avoid being taken away by social services when his mother didn’t have enough money to raise him, Allen says that at ten years old he retrieved used shopping carts at supermarkets in return for food. At the age of 14, he began selling jokes to comedian Jimmie Walker, and later worked with a young David Letterman and Jay Leno. Eventually he became a low-grade TV star, performing on The Tonight Show and the early-1980s proto-reality TV series Real People on NBC.
In the early 1990s, Allen started his own media company, creating low-budget syndicated shows he often hosted, and giving them to TV networks desperate for cheap content. He would split the advertising revenue with the stations, eventually growing his empire into one of the largest independent producers and distributors of televised content.
Allen wants to be a global brand distributing all sorts of content, not a Tyler Perry type that puts himself at the center of the show. He uses the language of civil rights situationally, to promote his goals. And he is unafraid to challenge anyone in pursuit of his empire. After the financial crisis, he attacked former President Barack Obama for refusing to audit bailed-out banks over their lending practices to black people. Later, in 2016, he went after Obama for allowing a giant cable merger between Charter and Time Warner, asserting that Charter refused to carry his content. President Obama and his FCC “have really abandoned the African American community,” he said. “At the end of the day, he is ignoring the fact that African Americans are suffering economic genocide. It’s being played out in the homelessness, the unemployment and even the violence.”
Allen is respected for his drive and hustle. “The Byron that I know is a salesman—he’s always got a pitch—combined with a visionary who believes in the need for more diversity,” said Robert Johnson, the legendary billionaire and founder of Black Entertainment Television. When Allen branched into film in 2015, music business icon Quincy Jones said, “I am very proud of Byron, and I hope he adopts me.” Last year, Allen bought The Weather Channel from the Blackstone Group, Bain Capital, and Comcast, and he has a $500 million credit line for more acquisitions.
And yet his colleagues mix this respect with a certain distance, a fear of his raw ambition. He made his money, as one person involved in the Comcast dispute told me, by “gaming the white boy system.” His racial-discrimination lawsuit against Comcast is, he says, about economic inclusion, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that in some ways it’s about economic inclusion for Byron Allen himself. In April 2019, for instance, black celebrities Magic Johnson, LL Cool J, and Serena Williams tried to buy 21 networks Disney had to divest as a condition of its merger with Fox. Allen, by contrast, joined the rightward-titling Sinclair Broadcast Group as a minority investor, and Sinclair was able to buy Disney’s assets. Allen’s company got several of the stations.
But Allen’s basic argument, whether put forward in good faith or not, is right. Black business moguls, having climbed to the top of the cable and entertainment field, now face the most intractable foe of economic inclusion: monopoly.
Cable and Black Voices
The cable industry is one of the focal points of this fight, for a few reasons.
It is the first media industry that emerged after the civil rights movement. Cable television exploded from the 1970s to the 1990s, a sort of dot-com boom through coaxial cable. The wiring was largely done at a municipal level, so black businessmen could win franchises in cities with large black populations. It was a political business from the start, and where black voters had political power, black businessmen often succeeded.
It also became, very quickly, a big business. Comcast, for instance, was incorporated under its current name in 1969. From 1978 to 1982, as the FCC allowed big cities to wire themselves with cable, networks like ESPN, Nickelodeon, CNN, USA, and C-Span all launched. Cable revenues soared from $3.6 billion in 1981 to over $20 billion in 1990. In 1980, 20 percent of households had cable; by 1990, it was 60 percent.
A host of African American cable and content operators participated in the cable boom. Don Barden became a cable tycoon in the 1980s by wiring cities all over the country, winning the right to the cable franchise in the heavily African American city of Detroit. Malcolm X’s lawyer Percy Sutton got the cable concession for Queens, as did black business leaders Barry Washington in Newark, William T. Johnson in Columbus, and James Wade in West Philadelphia. Robert and Sheila Johnson started Black Entertainment Television, and BET became the first black company to list on the New York Stock Exchange. By contrast, when similar explosions happened in the radio or broadcast TV industries decades earlier, Jim Crow was still in force, and blacks were left out.
Concentrated media ownership places the means to shape the imagery of black Americans into the hands of white financiers.
But a different barrier hit the first wave of black cable entrepreneurs: access to capital. Many, like Sutton, faced financial challenges at the cost of wiring cities, unable to fulfill the promises they made to win cable franchises. Even successful cable entrepreneurs had trouble. Barden, for instance, after winning the cable franchise in Detroit in the early 1980s, had to cede some control to a Canadian company that did much of the financing. This lack of access to capital helped consolidate black businesses into the hands of white owners; Barden ended up selling his Detroit cable system to Comcast for $100 million in the early 1990s.
Historically, entertainment is one of the few fields where black businesspeople can succeed on an even playing field, and in the 1980s, black entertainers began building large business empires. Sometimes the playing field was literal; Magic Johnson turned his basketball celebrity into a conglomerate worth $600 million, which has included a movie theater chain, a record label, a film studio, and a partnership with Starbucks. Forbes listed five black billionaires in America, and three—Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, and Jay-Z—are entertainers. Turning back to cable, BET founders Bob and Sheila Johnson were America’s first black billionaire couple. Black entertainment barons know each other and can help each other, forming a critical network that often doesn’t exist for African American entrepreneurs in other sectors of the economy.
But the problem of capital access still plagues even the wealthiest black businesspeople. Despite her track record of success, Sheila Johnson couldn’t get a loan in 2019 to finance a new hotel. Even today, the racial wealth gap is extreme. Of the top 100 wealthiest people in America, not a single one is black. Black citizens face hurdles to full economic inclusion; black-owned banks were one-tenth as likely to get bailout funds during the financial crisis. That’s what makes the fight between black business leaders and cable monopolists so important. While there are black tycoons in technology and finance, the wealth and power in those industries is disproportionately white. In media, there is enough black wealth to build business, but not quite enough to finance it at the scale of Comcast. And this has created tensions that expose an entire rigged system.
The Rise of Law and Economics
For most of American history, big used to be bad, especially in media. The government broke up its giants, doing everything from splitting off NBC from ABC in the 1940s, to preventing TV networks from owning their own prime-time content, to imposing restrictive rules on ownership of local radio and television channels.
But the post–civil rights era also coincided with the emergence of a new economic ideology to destroy New Deal controls on corporate power. This movement was led by a law professor named Robert Bork, a conservative antitrust scholar. His strategy was risky, aggressive, and tailored to racist ideology from the jump. In a 1963 article in The New Republic, Bork publicly attacked the Civil Rights Act, earning the trust and respect of Southern white elites and an important place in the Barry Goldwater–led Republican Party.
Using this springboard, over the next 15 years, Bork led the law and economics movement to get rid of antitrust enforcement and public rules for industry, not under the guise of explicit racism, but under the guise of property rights and efficiency. He was joined, ironically, by progressive baby boomer political leaders who came into force in the mid-1970s after Watergate. From 1975 onward, the Democratic Congress eliminated laws protecting small retailers, and deregulated airlines and banks. To many of these new leaders, Bork didn’t look like a racist—the Southern populists who sought to protect the small businessman against monopoly did. But his corporatist philosophy enabled racial inequality and discrimination across the country through the use of economic power.
Media was always a focal point for Bork’s movement; in the 1960s, scholars penned articles in The Journal of Law and Economics criticizing the FCC’s attempts to organize the nascent cable industry. In 1979, the Supreme Court, in FCC v. Midwest Video Corp., ruled the FCC didn’t have the authority to regulate cable networks to ensure they were treating channel owners fairly. It was a 6-3 decision, with Thurgood Marshall notably dissenting.
Democrats joined Bork’s movement in concentrating media power. At the Federal Communications Commission, Jimmy Carter appointee Charles Ferris removed rules governing cable television. Radio broadcasters reacted with “glee” as Ferris deregulated their industry. Five years later, congressional Democrats and Ronald Reagan passed the Cable Act of 1984, which deregulated the industry. In 1985, Robert Bork, now a D.C. Court of Appeals judge, helped strike down rules mandating that cable operators had to carry local content, citing the cable operators’ First Amendment rights to choose what to carry on their network. It was not a conservative decision; joining Bork in the decision were Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Judge Skelly Wright, a John F. Kennedy appointee.
Cable prices began skyrocketing, and consolidation started. By 1988, the ten largest cable operators served over 60 percent of subscribers. And subsequently, in the three years between 1986 and 1989, cable prices jumped 43 percent. The price hikes soured Americans on the unregulated industry. Public outrage, along with the desire of broadcasters to charge for their content, led to the Cable Act of 1992, which re-regulated prices and blocked cable operators who owned content from discriminating against competitors or from demanding equity stakes or other favors to carry their content.
The Cable Act was the only bill that passed over the veto of George H.W. Bush. Yet, FCC chairs under Bill Clinton didn’t enforce the Cable Act strongly, and even when they tried, increasingly conservative courts continued to clip their wings. Just four years after the Cable Act re-regulated the industry, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 removed pricing caps for cable, and enabled a new round of consolidation.
This new legal environment enabled the massive growth of Comcast, which was a small Pennsylvania company in the 1970s. Comcast began consolidating power as soon as it became legal. It bought Group W Cable in 1986, increasing its base to a million subscribers, and purchased QVC, a home shopping content provider.
In 1994, Comcast became the third-biggest cable operator in the country through a series of mergers. Two years later, it began offering broadband internet access, and bought the Philadelphia Flyers. It launched E! Entertainment Television with Disney. In 2002, Comcast acquired all of AT&T’s cable assets for $44.5 billion, giving the company 22 million subscribers and elevating it to number one in cable. It formed the Golf Channel, tried to buy Disney and MGM, and bought assets from Adelphia Cable in 2005.
Meanwhile, the law and economics shift in thinking influenced black politics, just as it did the whole country. “The Sherman Antitrust Act may at this point be an anachronism,” said Barbara Jordan in 1981; Jordan was one of the few black women who had served in Congress to that point. Many black leaders avoided, or did not see, the racial implications of concentrated financial power, instead choosing to focus on how it might advance the interests of individual businesses, people, and politicians. Corporate donations began to power the black political establishment. Today, the corporate advisory council of the Congressional Black Caucus includes the most powerful monopolies in the land, with representatives from Google, Facebook, Apple, JPMorgan, Altria, Bank of America, and AT&T. And CBC members like David Scott and Gregory Meeks have been reliable allies for Wall Street, continually subverting progressive efforts on the House Financial Services Committee.
White financial leaders manipulated the language of racial tolerance for their own purposes. “Unlike other crusaders from Berkeley, I have chosen Wall Street as my battleground for improving society,” said junk bond king turned (now pardoned) felon Michael Milken. Indeed, as he was constructing a political machine to defend himself from congressional investigators, Milken financed the creation of the biggest black business in America, Reginald Lewis’s 1988 takeover of Beatrice Foods. Milken also hired Jesse Jackson’s son at his investment bank, reflecting a growing alliance between concentrated finance and black political actors in the post–civil rights era.
From the 1980s to the 2000s, consolidations of power took place across our society, including in black America. There were 50 black-owned insurance companies in the 1980s, and just two as of 2014. Black-owned banks started collapsing in the 1980s, and from 2001 to 2017 the number fell by 56 percent.
Would-be monopolists learned the value of having civil rights groups in their corner. In 2011, the Obama administration approved Comcast’s largest merger, when it bought NBC, in part because of the strong support it received from the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP, the National Urban League, and other minority groups. Congressman Bobby Rush, a senior House Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee and a critical voice in racial debates over technology and media ownership, was effusive about the deal. “I am pleased and interested and somewhat delighted by the approach that Comcast and NBC have made towards satisfying our concerns,” he said in a House hearing on the merger, citing the promises by Comcast to add diversity in programming to its slate of channels. “This represents a real opportunity that minority businesses and investors must not miss.”
The relationship between black leaders and Comcast goes beyond policy. Comcast has deep political and charitable relationships with black communities and political leaders. Comcast supports Rush through both political and charitable donations. A few months after the merger was approved, Comcast gave $50,000 to Beloved Community Foundation Family Services, an organization Rush founded. Earle Jones, Comcast’s top lobbyist, is on the board of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. From 2011 to 2014, Comcast spent over $500,000 to “honor the Congressional Black Caucus,” and it also donated to the NAACP, the Urban League, and the National Action Network. Six months after the NBC merger approval, Comcast’s news division added a black MSNBC host, none other than icon Al Sharpton.
In 2011, the Obama administration approved the Comcast-NBC merger in part because of the strong support it received from minority groups.
To secure support for the NBC merger, Comcast made a host of promises to black and Latino leaders. Comcast signed a memorandum of understanding about diversity with the NAACP, National Urban League, and Sharpton’s National Action Network, among others. The corporation agreed to more than 150 conditions upon signing its consent decree with the Obama administration.
Federal Communications Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the daughter of South Carolina Democratic power broker Jim Clyburn, voted to approve the merger, contingent on certain promises. Comcast committed to improve “diversity of viewpoint and programming,” to avoid discriminating against content flowing on the internet (the principle known as “net neutrality”), to protect small cable operators and local broadcasters, and to provide more broadband to children who get federally subsidized school lunches.
Comcast essentially offered a deal to black policymakers and leaders. The corporation would serve some of the functions of a government, expanding vital services to black people that white people already get—like broadband and representative media—in return for political support. Comcast would also pay back political leaders and nonprofit groups with sweeteners like political and charitable contributions; they would use those resources to organize politically in communities starved of capital. Ultimately, policymakers decided that voluntary commitments from Comcast to improve the lived experience of black customers and creators who need the Comcast platform to get their shows to market were as good as they were going to get.
And yet these promises were hollow and mostly didn’t happen, including the pledges to work with black and brown content owners. Clyburn had little leverage, thanks to corruption and fecklessness among white officials. Obama’s FCC Chair Julius Genachowski, who is now in charge of media company buyouts at private equity giant The Carlyle Group, had signaled he would approve the merger no matter what. And six months after the merger, one of the Republican FCC commissioners who voted for the deal, Meredith Baker, went to work for Comcast. The deal didn’t have to happen. As one person then at the Justice Department told me, “If we had an FCC that was willing to say this is not in the public interest, then we could have gone forward to challenge the merger and may not have had to go to court.” Because of policy choices by Genachowski and Baker, black policymakers couldn’t leverage their power into anything more than superficial concessions.
The approval of the Comcast-NBC merger in 2011 was one of the most important antitrust actions of the Obama administration. “Comcast’s acquisition of NBC Universal is a transaction like no other that has come before this Commission—ever,” said then–FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. “It reaches into virtually every corner of our media and digital landscapes and will affect every citizen in the land.”
Comcast is now a Goliath, with 27 million households subscribing to its internet service and roughly a quarter of the pay-TV subscriber base. The NBC deal brought Comcast in-house movie assets like Universal Studios, news channels like MSNBC and CNBC, dozens of local affiliates, theme parks, and stakes in Snap, Hulu, Fandango, Buzzfeed, and Vox Media. If you want to distribute content to Americans, you are probably going through Comcast’s pipes in one way or another, either through its broadband lines or its TV gatekeepers.
But even the size and scale of Comcast understates the importance of the merger. The combination of a large content production and advertising company and a large content distributor set a precedent. Media in America would be, as it is said in the industry, vertically integrated, in the hands of a small number of players.
The choice to allow Comcast and NBC to merge drove a wave of defensive-oriented strategic choices by rivals to expand their market power. Netflix, formerly just a distributor of content, soon produced House of Cards, realizing that it wouldn’t be able to perpetually license content from a beefed-up Comcast. AT&T bought Time Warner, and Disney continued an acquisition spree and launched a streaming service so it can control production and distribution of content. Google, Amazon, and Facebook are all vertically integrated advertising, content production, and distribution machines, and increasingly, so are video game corporations. As Copps put it, the merger conferred “too much power” in too few hands. It helped set the stage for today’s extraordinarily concentrated Big Tech and Big Media platform political framework.
The consequences of the merger, and the media consolidation from 2011 onward, were catastrophic for black America. Black newspapers are largely gone, crushed first by the financial crisis and then the monopolization of ad revenue by Google and Facebook. Disproportionately black counties still trail white counties in broadband access, and American broadband access is among the most expensive in the world. The new world of Big Tech surrounds Americans with algorithms that promote racist content or enable new forms of discrimination.
The Byron Allen Suit
In 2016, Byron Allen filed a federal lawsuit against both Charter and Comcast. The two large cable corporations refused to carry most of his networks, he alleges, because of racial discrimination.
In some sense, Comcast is acting like a standard unregulated monopoly, without racial animus. Earlier this year, The Hollywood Reporter revealed it was removing 17 Starz channels from its lineup, channels owned by non-black company Lionsgate, due to a “nasty” dispute over fees. Comcast will replace them with a rival, Epix. This is the heart of 50 Cent’s fight with Comcast, since his show Power is carried by Starz.
But race underpins the market structure of the entertainment industry, because the entertainment industry sells cultural products. Comcast, as a giant cable company, picks and chooses which channels to carry, giving it massive leverage over what Americans watch. And since Comcast bought NBC, it now has an incentive to carry its own content over its own distribution network, instead of buying content from others. Comcast, according to Byron Allen, won’t carry his channels, but he alleged it will carry lesser-known channels from white-owned content creators.
WHEN COMCAST negotiated with Allen’s company, one of Comcast’s executives apparently gave a racial argument for turning down carriage of Allen’s content, saying, “We’re not trying to create any more Bob Johnsons,” referring to the billionaire founder of BET. It would not be so unusual to hear a racist comment from a corporate executive, except that, as we’ve seen, Comcast and the entire cable industry have particularly close ties to African American leaders.
Allen is suing under America’s oldest civil rights law, the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The law was passed immediately after the Civil War to ensure newly freed black citizens would get the same rights as white citizens to enter into contracts. Like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this law builds racial equity into the way we define property itself. Black citizens didn’t get land or property, but they got, at least legally, the right to access property through contracts on equal terms with white citizens. Allen’s argument is that Comcast denied him access to the airwaves, while allowing access for white-owned content.
Allen didn’t limit his suit to the cable giants. He also sued the NAACP, the Urban League, and Al Sharpton, all of whom participated in the merger negotiations, because “this was corrupt.” Allen told me, “If you’re going to sign something that black people are supposed to live by, why don’t you tell black people how much money you’re getting from Comcast, that may be controlling your behavior and how you negotiate on behalf of black people?”
Allen’s suits weren’t popular within the black establishment. One judge, Terry Hatter, himself black, dismissed the suit against Comcast. Allen believes his attack on the black establishment may be why. “Judge Hatter may have been offended that … I named the NAACP and the Urban League and Al Sharpton” in the suit, he said. In the separate case against Charter, Judge George Wu let the lawsuit go forward. Both suits were later consolidated in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that Allen could proceed.
The legal question in the cases thus far wasn’t on the underlying discrimination claim, but on whether Allen could bring the suit without clear evidence that racism is the only reason he was denied business. As Allen put it, “It can be 99 percent because he’s black and 1 percent because he’s wearing tennis shoes and if that’s the case, he can’t even use the law against us to bring a suit against us. And so what the Ninth Circuit said … it’s not the sole reason, it’s the motivating factor.”
Charter eventually dropped its appeal and will go to trial on the merits of the claim. But Comcast, in response, appealed to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to prevent Allen from even bringing the suit unless he can prove that the decision to not carry his programming was made entirely on the basis of race. On March 23, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed with Comcast, sending the case back to the Ninth Circuit to reconsider whether Allen’s channels were denied solely because of racial discrimination. This will weaken America’s oldest civil rights statute, making it virtually impossible for a host of workers, consumers, and businesspeople to secure their property rights in the face of discrimination.
The extreme position by Comcast has scrambled the politics of the cable industry. Many opponents of Comcast are conservative owners of smaller cable systems. In 2018, Donald Trump publicly attacked Comcast for “routinely” violating antitrust laws. But in 2019, his administration flipped, supporting Comcast’s attempt to defang the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Comcast even gave Trump Solicitor General Noel Francisco ten of their allotted 30 minutes in oral arguments before the Supreme Court.
Allen is suing under America’s oldest civil rights law, the Civil Rights Act of 1866. This law builds racial equity into the way we define property itself.
Despite Allen’s earlier attack on much of the black establishment, the NAACP, the ACLU, Color of Change, the Urban League, and the National Association of Black Journalists have all come in against Comcast. The issue has now become much bigger than one man’s quest to become a media tycoon. Multiple Congressional Black Caucus members, and Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders weighed in, as have lesser political officials like New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.
Even Bobby Rush reversed his Comcast-friendly position, calling for the cable giant to be broken up. In a bitter letter to CEO Brian Roberts, Rush argued that Comcast, which had “enjoyed the largesse of the African-American communities,” had now become an “enemy of minority communities.” As Rush indicates, Comcast had mouthed soothing words about diversity when it needed support from black leaders, but has unacceptably embraced both the Trump administration and a racist ideology.
In district court, Comcast mocked Allen, sarcastically noting that Allen’s allegation put the company “in a racist plot with the Obama Administration, the oldest civil rights organizations in the country, Diddy, and Magic Johnson.” Comcast, after all, had carried Combs’s Revolt TV network.
In response, Combs, who had been silent, took Allen’s side. “Revolt has never been in a position to truly compete on a fair playing field because it has not received the economic and distribution support necessary for real economic inclusion,” he said. “Our relationship with Comcast is the illusion of economic inclusion.” Indeed, the case reflected back on Comcast’s broken diversity promises. The corporation had pledged to launch minority-owned channels to secure approval for the Comcast-NBC merger in 2011, but then ensured that those channels would be unable to financially succeed. Combs explained that he simply didn’t have the capital to make his channel viable, which seems odd for a man with a net worth of $850 million, but is consistent with the long history of black business leaders being unable to finance even profitable opportunities for expansion.
What of the underlying substance of Allen’s suit?
It’s certainly possible that Comcast’s executives are openly racist. After buying NBC, Comcast switched the chief diversity officer from a black woman to its main political fixer, chief of lobbying David Cohen. But most of the people I spoke with in the industry believe that Comcast is simply destroying independent programmers, not solely targeting black programmers. The company has squeezed out FUSE, beIN Sports, the Tennis Channel, and Altitude TV, and is in a fight with the owner of the Los Angeles Rams, who is married to an heir to the Walmart fortune. Comcast has even fought with Michael Bloomberg over carriage for his corporation’s business channel.
Comcast only wants to do business with large integrated systems that produce must-have content, like Disney, Viacom/CBS, and AT&T/Time Warner, with streaming options Netflix and Amazon in the wings. New technologies such as high-speed 5G mobile technology could fragment the market, providing ample opportunity for new streaming options, at least temporarily. 50 Cent is aggressively promoting Starz’s streaming app. But today, pay TV remains the dominant distribution and investment system in sustained high-quality narrative video content. And there are no legal limits to consolidating what comes next.
It might appear that Byron Allen is just one content creator among many muscled out by a powerful corporation, in a marketplace loosely controlled by four Goliaths. And he’s not necessarily aiming to start a Black History Channel, or really anything that reflects the black experience. Exchanging white capitalists for black capitalists doesn’t automatically improve opportunities for black actors and writers and filmmakers, or the images watched by black families.
But Allen’s crusade does shine a light on a long-standing system of oppression that, as so often is the case in America, disproportionately affects people of color. Black-owned media entrepreneurs are by and large independent producers, and even the giants among them struggle to finance their operations. Fully expressive black-owned media channels can’t really exist without the open markets into which independent producers can sell. Which means unless we do something about concentration in media, it will be financiers like Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, rather than black leaders, who own the means of control for commercial imagery of black America.
Is this a problem with racism, or is this just discrimination against the little guy that any monopolist might engage in? One person I interviewed said it’s the age-old problem in America. “When white folks catch a cold,” he said, “black folks get pneumonia.” That’s true with being able to raise money to start and run a business. And it’s true with monopolies. Discrimination is discrimination.