The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Blacks own just 10 U.S. television stations. Here’s why.

Consolidation and historic discrimination are pushing minority owners out.

Lionel Richie arrives for the 2014 Black Entertainment Television Awards in Los Angeles, California. (EPA/Paul Buck)
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This month, a federal district court judge in California threw out media entrepreneur Byron Allen’s $20 billion lawsuit against Comcast and Time Warner Cable. The suit accused the cable giants of discriminating against black-owned media companies by creating and reserving just “a few spaces” for their channels at “the back of the bus.” A judge disagreed, dismissing the 71-page lawsuit in a snappy three-page decision.

But just because this particular case fell flat doesn’t mean minority exclusion from broadcast and cable ownership isn’t a problem. It is – a big one.

Minority owners are burdened by the legacy of racism. When the U.S. government first started giving away our airwaves in the 1930s, they were distributed exclusively to white, male owners. It mostly stayed this way until the 1970s, when the FCC tried to remedy the problem by implementing a “Minority Ownership Policy.” The measure offered tax incentives to people seeking to sell stations to minority owners. 

The policy worked. Within two years of its passage, the country went from one black-owned television station to 10. Over its total 17 year existence, minority ownership increased five-fold. But it was struck down by the newly-elected Republican Congress in 1995 and since then, its success has been mostly undone. In 2013, minorities owned just 6 percent of commercial television stations in the country, 6 percent of FM stations and 11 percent of AM stations.

With a few notable exceptions (the cable network Black Entertainment Television launched in 1980 and TV One followed in 1995), African American ownership remains particularly low, hovering at less than one percent of all television properties, and less than 2 percent of radio. Last year in fact, just two television stations were owned by black owners. (That number is up to about 10 today).

Media consolidation is at the heart of the problem. Clear Channel, for example, famously wiped out small and minority radio station owners with its buying spree, which allowed the company to snatch up as many as seven stations in a single market. According to Lauren M. Wilson, policy counsel at Free Press, a media watchdog organization, minority ownership decreases as markets become more concentrated. The proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner cable earlier this year was struck down by the FCC for just that reason.

But consolidation isn’t the only evil at work here: lack of diversity is compounded by historic discrimination. “The FCC has been licensing broadcasting stations for 80 years,” says James Winston, president of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters. “During most of that time, the only people in a position to obtain them were white males.” Winston explained that as technology developed from radio to television and then cable, the same, white-owned companies continued to lead the pack because they could adapt to the new technology fastest.

“African Americans and other minorities have come to the business world late, and without family-inherited wealth,” he says. “We find ourselves with every disadvantage in terms of becoming successful entrepreneurs in broadcasting and in new technologies.”

The FCC has done little recently to right these wrongs. After Congress tossed its Minority Ownership Policy, the FCC did not put a new strategy in place. David Honig, co-founder and president emeritus of the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council  in Washington, D.C., has represented more than 70 minority, civil rights, and religious organizations in proceedings before the FCC over the past three decades. He says that these groups come to his organization with “big business plans” for minority-focused channels but are unable to “crack the code to get in the door.” Cable distributors that control whether or not these start-ups live or die are largely white-controlled. It’s up to them to determine whether they want to carry, for example, the BlackEveryWoman channel.

Honig served as subcommittee chair on the FCC’s Diversity Committee, which hasn’t met in nearly two years; it’s the only advisory committee of the agency that hasn’t met for that long. The commission is expected (or, depending on who you ask, legally required by Congress) to issue reports on diversity and minority ownership every two or three years. These reports are generally late, incomplete, and unreliable.

“There are dozens of diversity proposals before the FCC gathering dust,” says Honi, including new tax incentive legislation. “The FCC is doing very, very little relative to the need.”