Will new black networks, including two from Magic and Diddy, change how we're represented on TV?
Clocking in with nearly 213 hours per month, African Americans watch more television than any other ethnicity, according to a Nielsen study. That's twice as many hours as Asians and 57 more hours than whites. Yet you wouldn't know it from a casual flip through your local and cable channels. Despite some high-profile wins -- professor-turned-talking head-turned-MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, for example -- cable television is still largely white, with the exception of niche channels BET, Centric and TV One.
That stands to change in the next few years. Comcast recently announced plans to launch 10 new channels over the course of eight years, eight of which will be evenly split between and independently owned and operated by African Americans and Hispanics. Two of those channels -- and the men behind them -- have already been named: Magic Johnson's faith- and family-based Aspire and Sean "Diddy" Combs' Revolt, which is being billed as an MTV alternative.
With these new channels set to enter the marketplace, one has to wonder: How will it affect the representation of black people on television? BET has taken heat in the past for its programming, and its Viacom sister station VH1 seems to have a personal vendetta against black women, as reflected in shows like Basketball Wives and the long-gone Flavor of Love. Centric and TV One, while providing an option, have yet to become industry leaders.
Comcast says its decision was informed by its ongoing commitment to diversity and an agreement with a number of African-American organizations, including the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network, referred to as the memorandum of understanding. When Comcast began merger proceedings with NBC Universal, these organizations presented the company with ideas on how to promote diversity in programming and staffing.
The decision has earned both applause and guarded concern. Dr. Boyce Watkins, a professor at Syracuse University, says that he hopes management at the new channels realizes there is a "double bottom line": to make a profit but also to elevate the community through socially conscious programming. "They can help us do a better job of sharing stories and news that reflects what's happening in our community," Watkins says. "We no longer become a footnote in media; we become the headline."
Aspire's multigenerational programming will focus on positive and family-friendly African-American-created movies, music and comedy. Revolt will hark back to the MTV of yore (music videos, news and live performances) but with a decidedly modern focus on social media.
"I'm a little bit concerned by the fact that the individuals chosen to run this have a strong leaning toward entertainment," Watkins says. "Black people tend to really elevate entertainers above everybody else. Your life shouldn't be laughing and fun all the time. We are what we watch ... if all you're [watching] is a bunch of crap, that's what your consuming."
While the impact that these channels will have on the community remains to be seen -- Aspire is working toward a late-June launch, and Revolt won't be up until 2013 -- one thing is clear: There is a need for black-created content that other companies and existing networks aren't addressing. It was clear through the call for channel proposals, says David Jansen, Comcast's vice president of content acquisition.
Although Comcast had expected only a few dozen applications, "by the end of May  we had over 100 fully thought-out channel proposals, [with] 80 in the African-American space," Jansen says. "This process validated our expectations: that these communities, viewers and also the creative community are underserved."
Providing a space for the African-American creative community to share their work comes up frequently as one of Aspire's goals. "There wasn't a network dedicated to creating a bridge from the past to the next generation of African Americans in the creative community: actors, directors, photographers, all of those folks," says Brad Siegel, vice chairman of GMC, the family network partnering with Johnson. "From Day 1 you'll see -- every hour from the day we launch -- works from next-generation creators."
The rise of these channels raises the question: Why did it take so long? BET was around for 29 years before rebranded sister station Centric came around in 2009, after TV One launched in 2004.
It's a hard question to answer, Jansen acknowledges. Maybe the powers that be decided that "those business models are too difficult, that those demographic targets are just watching general-market programming," he says. "But there's no question that the content is out there to build channels with."
Comcast is mainly presenting a platform to have these channels made, while the channel's owners ultimately decide the type of content to run on it. It's an opportunity to create networks that really cater to the community's needs, Watkins says. "Comcast giving us a couple of networks, it's no different from 40 acres and a mule," he says. "But you work with that 40 acres and you reinvest, buy yourself a 1,000 acres and buy a whole fleet of donkeys, and you grow from that. You don't want to remain a sharecropper for the rest of your life."
While Comcast touts its industry lead in matters of diversity, the new channels aren't entirely altruistic. Nothing says "return on investment" like catering to a community that will have an estimated $1.1 trillion worth of buying power by 2015. But whatever the reasons behind these new channels, we'll be watching.
Anthonia Akitunde is a freelance writer living in Queens, N.Y. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Fast Company and The Root DC. Follow her on Twitter.