Just how serious is Comcast about attracting Latino and African-American viewers?
After all, in order to land NBCUniversal, the cable giant was required to commit to minority targeted programming.
On Tuesday, Comcast said it would will carry four new independent channels from Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Sean “Diddy” Combs, “Desperado” director Robert Rodriguez, and Spanish language TV veteran Constantino “Said” Schwarz.
Whether or not Comcast diversified willingly, supporters say that there is a real financial opportunity to attract an underserved demographic — provided the company takes the time to create a credible slate of programming as opposed to simply making a few token gestures.
“If Comcast puts its weight behind this then it should be successful, but the question is how important is it to them and are the right people in place,” Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies in the USC School of Cinematic Arts, told TheWrap.
Boyd said that he was not entirely convinced that the cable giant’s initial slate of offerings showed a true commitment, suggesting that the company took the easy way out with bold-faced names rather than choosing people with TV programming know-how.
Clearly the need to satisfy the Federal Communications Commission's diversity requirements is largely responsible for Comcast's announcement Tuesday. Comcast also stands to profit financially.
“They have seen the Census as well and would love to know how to hit that demographic,” Rodriguez told TheWrap. “This is a requirement for Comcast, but they didn’t treat it like that. They want this to be successful.”
Supporters say that entertainers likes Rodriguez and Combs, who know this audience, are key to helping this slate of programming stand out in a sea of cable channels.
Comcast has a vested interest in pulling off the venture: In order to keep growing, it needs to come up with entertainment for expanding demographic groups.
The proposed networks, which focus on everything from music to sports, are designed to be commercially viable and advertising friendly.
“Diversity is a good thing for any company; it’s good for their bottom line,” Lisa Navarrete, a spokeswoman for the Latino civil rights group, The National Council of La Raza, told TheWrap. “It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.”
Navarrete points out that studies show that Latino viewers are “brand loyal” and “oversubscribe” as media consumers.
The same holds true for African-American audiences, which make up the largest minority segment of the U.S. television household population. In total, they represent 13 percent of the 109.6 million TV households surveyed by Nielsen.
Of course, there is more competition for that demographic than there was even five years ago. In the case of African-Americans, BET is no longer the only game in town. Bounce TV launched last year and now vies with BET’s Centric and TV One.
Moreover, while Spanish-language television has enjoyed a surge in popularity and now competes — and in some cases bests — English-language networks in certain timeslots, there are fresh challengers on the horizon. Disney and Univision are reportedly planning to pool their resources on a 24-hour news network aimed at Latino viewers.
There are also a smattering of Latino and African-American themed programs scattered across other broadcast outlets.
At least in its initial foray, Comcast seems to be banking on big media personalities as a way to attract viewers and differentiate themselves from the pack.
That could be problematic, however, as Rodriguez, Johnson and Combs have been successful in their chosen careers but have no experience running a cable network.
Boyd, for one, argues that Oprah Winfrey’s troubled experience in launching OWN may expose a flaw in the strategy.
“Who in the history of television has been more successful than Oprah, and she struggled with launching her own network," Boyd said. "So that is a lesson to anyone that there are no guarantees."
Though details are still being hammered out and the networks are months, even years away, from launching, it is clear that the proposed minority partners are interested in targeting certain niches within each demographic.
Combs’ Revolt focuses on the music industry; Johnson’s Aspire will sport inspirational programming that could court the faith-based community; Schwarz’s BabyFirst Americas will center on children’s programming; and Rodriguez’s El Rey will feature reality, scripted and animated series.
In the case of Rodriguez, there’s another important difference. Unlike Univision or Telemundo, El Rey will center on the Latino experience, but will be in English.
“The Spanish-language channels are focused on first generation Latinos, but the boom is with the second and third generation,” Rodriguez said. “That’s people like my kids who are bilingual, and there’s nothing really on TV that represents their experience in this country.”
The minority groups that pressured the FCC to make increasing diversity a requirement for approving the merger hope Comcast’s foray into minority programming will be a hit so that it encourages other entertainment companies to fall into line.
"Whether Comcast went kicking or screaming or not, it is the future, and networks might as well get hip to it," Stephanie Allain, producer of “Hustle and Flow” and director of the Los Angeles Film Festival, told TheWrap. "It not like these demographics are getting smaller."