Comcast-NBCU Under Fire for Dragging Its Feet on Diversity

EXCLUSIVE: From civil rights groups to Oprah Winfrey, criticism is rising at the cable giant’s slow moves on its diversity pledge

EXCLUSIVE

When Comcast was angling to take over NBCU, the cable giant promised prominently to increase the profile of minorities at the company and launch eight independent cable networks, including four under African-American control.

But a Who’s Who of African American media figures and civil rights leaders are frustrated that Comcast doesn't seem to be moving fast enough, if at all.

That includes a recent disastrous meeting between Comcast executives and Oprah Winfrey, in which Comcast executives rebuffed the media queen's request for support for her OWN network.

Leading entrepreneur Russell Simmons was rebuffed when he approached NBCU CEO Steve Burke about acquiring the Style network.

The National Urban League, NAACP and Al Sharpton's National Action Network, major civil rights groups, see several trouble spots with their efforts to work with Comcast, TheWrap has learned.

NBCU, for example, has yet to fill the post of chief diversity officer. It has been vacant since Paula Madison, executive vice president, retired in May.

Additionally, according to two persons briefed on the matter, the civil rights groups were taken aback by a realignment of cable-programming management in July that diluted the power of Salaam Coleman Smith, an African-American woman who is president of NBCU-owned Style Network. As a result of the change, Coleman no longer reports directly to Lauren Zalaznick, chairman of NBCU Entertainment & Digital Networks and Integrated Media.

Generally, Comcast and NBCU seem clueless of the sprawling cloud over their efforts, projecting instead a sense of progress.

"Hopefully you will see statistics going in our favor as time goes on," NBC Entertainment Chairman President Robert Greenblatt said at the Television Critics Assn. on Monday morning, referring to the company's efforts to increase diversity in casting and executive ranks.

While NBCU declined official comment on the vacant diversity post, a person close to the company told TheWrap, “a successor to Paula Madison will be named very shortly.”

At times, the atmosphere has been charged behind the scenes.

According to media executives privy to the meeting, Winfrey, accompanied by a consultant, cable veteran Tom Freston, and former Oprah Winfrey Network president Christina Norman, was seeking unspecified Comcast support for her fledgling OWN, which launched in January. 

Comcast executives are said to have rebuffed Winfrey, suggesting at one point that they had been turned off by the enormous syndication fees that she reaped during her 25-year reign as queen of daytime talk on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” 

After relaying TheWrap’s account to Winfrey, a top OWN spokeswoman declined to comment. Comcast’s chief spokesperson said she had no personal knowledge of the meeting, adding, "I will ask around … "

But it's not just Winfrey.

In December, with the mega-deal still under regulatory scrutiny, the National Urban League, NAACP and Al Sharpton's National Action Network and Comcast jointly filed to the Federal Communications Commission a “memorandum of understanding.” In exchange for the groups’ support, Comcast pledged to launch the four new networks.

 A month later, the FCC approved the transaction.

Now there's scramble for control of the promised new channels. While it surely will produce winners, it also risks alienating losers among a galaxy of black stars.

Known and rumored aspirants include entertainer Whoopi Goldberg, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, multifaceted impresario Sean “Diddy” Combs, basketball great Earvin “Magic” Johnson, BET co-founder Bob Johnson and hip-hop super-producer Pharrell Williams in association with upstart network Karmaloop TV.

People close to the situation talk of alliances being formed and of whispers that some aspirants have “an inside track” in landing a channel.

Comcast's chief spokeswoman told TheWrap the cable company has received "more than 100 high-quality proposals" for the first Hispanic and African-American channels. Several have been chosen "to participate in the next phase of our evaluation process, which will consist of more detailed business discussions in the coming months.”

In seeding new channels targeting African-Americans, Comcast angered its most strategic partner on the diversity front — the pioneering African American broadcaster Cathy Hughes and her son Alfred Liggins, people familiar with the situation told TheWrap. 

The family, which founded and controls publicly traded Radio One, co-launched cable network TV One in 2004 with Comcast, aiming to compete against the long-established BET for a core African-American audience.

Hughes and Liggins were irked that Comcast, its erstwhile partner, in effect, was now sponsoring competing networks, people close to the situation told TheWrap. Liggins, CEO of Radio One, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Last week, a story on the Daily Beast may have inflamed the issue.

The website reported that just months after Liggins enthusiastically supported the Comcast-NBCU deal, the cable company yielded majority control of TV One in a confidential transaction.

But more explosive was its focus on the role of Al Sharpton.

Implied was that Comcast and Radio One compensated Sharpton for his crucial endorsement of the then-pending Comcast-NBCU deal. 

Radio One, the Daily Beast reported, pays Sharpton $700,000 a year for a variety of services to its media properties — some he’d been doing before the deal. What’s more, it cited Sharpton’s possible hire by MSNBC, the NBCU-owned news channel, to host a 5 o’clock show.

“There is absolutely no correlation between Al Sharpton’s support for the NBCU deal and any discussions he may be having with MSNBC,” said a Comcast spokesperson. Persons close to Sharpton say he is contemplating a lawsuit against the DailyBeast. He declined to comment.

All of the diversity drama has inspired Russell Simmons: Moved by his NBCU experiences, hip-hop’s entrepreneurial icon and yoga devotee now is on a personal campaign to inspire creative industries, Hollywood and beyond, to end an approach to diversity that amounts to “segregation.”

Simmons told TheWrap that he approached Steve Burke, CEO of NBCU and executive vice president of Comcast, about acquiring the Style Network, which attracts women of all hues. Burke instead suggested he buy a stake in black-focused TV One, Simmons said.

Simmons said that he had envisioned reaching not a narrow ethnic niche, but a broader, youthful multicultural audience — and considered Style more suited to his strategy.

But Simmons took great care to not demonize Burke. He told TheWrap that the top NBCU boss had acted innocently and with sincere intent to be helpful. 

“Let me be very clear: He’s not guilty of anything except being like everyone else," said Simmons, who notes that NBCU-owned networks have enthusiastically supported his projects. Simmons has found, he said, that gatekeepers across creative industries reflexively relegate African-American entrepreneurs to African-American consumer markets.

But “inclusion in the mainstream would be empowering for blacks,” Simmons said. “Some of us want to be competitive in the broad American economy that [African Americans] do more through trend-setting to influence than anyone.”

As Comcast and NBCU are discovering, diversity comes in many shades and styles.