Over the past generation, the American television landscape has unarguably grown more diverse. Today, there are more opportunities for African Americans in front of and behind the camera than ever before.
Much of this progress gets celebrated publicly — be it at network launch parties, red carpet events and screenings for new television shows and content. But, the real work of expanding the diversity of TV programming has always happened behind the scenes. Behind every step forward is a bleary-eyed writer, or an overworked cast and production team, or a tireless entrepreneur, succeeding against the odds to find that sweet spot of high-quality programming that will connect with an audience.
I personally know about this experience all too well.
The launch of my network, AFRO TV, last year on Comcast’s Xfinity service reflects the industry’s openness to seeing global images and unique content on TV and online. Comcast, the country’s largest cable distributor, actually invited and encouraged my company, Afrotainment, to submit a bid to create a new, black-owned network to meet the exploding demand for multicultural black content. We won a distribution deal because our programming was exclusive, original, creative and provided the market what it wants: a view into the diverse black cultures, lifestyles and entertainment.
Sure, our launch was a success story dotted with lots of press coverage and visibility. But as always, the real story was the work behind the scenes: finding financing, producing and licensing quality programming from talented Afro-Caribbean creators; marketing aggressively to build our audience one viewer at a time; and securing carriage distribution. We stood on the shoulders of those before us who blazed the path — like BET, TV One, Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey — who are examples to diverse program providers and producers, an acknowledgement that the door is open to us if our content is exclusive, original and compelling.
When I heard the very cable distributor that invited us in and provided a unique opportunity to Afrotainment to thrive was being sued for racial discrimination, I felt compelled to share the Afrotainment story — a story similar to the stories of other Black-owned networks who’ve worked for years to create compelling programming that connects with diverse audiences.
The suit alleges that black-owned networks “have been shut out by Comcast.” This is just not true. Comcast did not shut out AFROTV, The Africa Channel, ASPiRE, REVOLT, TV One, The Impact Network, and other Comcast-distributed independent networks wholly or majority-owned by black entrepreneurs. It’s demonstrably wrong and unfair to tag Comcast with such a canard. Since its merger with NBC, Comcast has helped launch or distribute more than a half dozen networks for communities of color and has a strong record of diversity in its news and film businesses.
Misusing the courts and hard-won civil rights laws to cut in line as a short cut from producing African American content with clear market appeal is where I draw the line and call foul.
And while carriage deals of others may not be our business, when civil rights is enjoined into an all-too-common carriage dispute, it becomes our business to call out unfairness, especially when bringing such a suit before a conservative-dominated Supreme Court risks setting back civil rights laws for future litigants with much more valid cases.
African American programmers want a fair shake, and not a free ride. When distributors unfairly shut the doors on quality content targeting the diverse African American communities, they should be held accountable.
Unfortunately, cases like this do not advance African American civil rights or increase the goals of more programming diversity. Cases like this simply tarnish a company that has done good, is doing good, and plans to continue doing good by people like me as well as the community I love.
Yves Bollanga is the founder and CEO of Afrotainment, a polycultural family of nine independent TV networks.
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