Channels of Diversity
Will new black networks, including two from Magic and Diddy, change how we're represented on TV?
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.