Oprah’s Debut Advances Black Media Ownership

How Oprah's new network lays a historic marker. Plus, how to add faces of color in online journalism conferences.

When a flick of the switch Saturday activates OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, making it available in 85 million homes, another marker will be laid in the quest for media ownership by people of color.

The new lifestyle channel — called the most-watched experiment in the television industry — will be available in both standard and high-definition on what is now the Discovery Health channel.

Discovery will retain 50 percent ownership of OWN, while Winfrey’s production company, Harpo, will control the other 50 percent, according to theStreet.com.

As the Project for Excellence in Journalism noted in its 2009 report, “the State of the Media,” “black ownership of television still has some considerable distance to go.

“Advertising Age reported in April that out of 1,379 commercial TV stations, only eight stations are owned by African Americans. . . .

“One study, by Free Press, a non-profit that promotes diversity in media ownership, found that African Americans comprised 13% of the U.S. population but only owned 1.3% of its TV stations in 2006. Furthermore, the study found that there had been no improvement in the level of minority ownership in television since 1998.”

The scarcity of black ownership on cable pushed activists to pressure Comcast to add more black-owned networks to its system as a price for supporting its pending acquisition of NBCU. They met with limited success.

“The top three owners of African-American-targeted cable channels are TV One and media behemoths Time Warner and Viacom, who both own three such channels [apiece],” Pharoh Martin of the National Newspaper Publishers Association wrote in May, quoting the Pew study.

Unlike BET, TV One or the defunct Black Family Channel, OWN is aiming for a general audience, very much like other Winfrey ventures.