Monday, February 23, 2015

$20 billion racial discrimination lawsuit filed against Comcast, Al Sharpton

A Comcast truck is seen parked at one of their centers on February 13, 2014 in Pompano Beach, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In the midst of a coming FCC decision about the proposed merger between telco giants Comcast and Time Warner Cable, a group has filed a $20 billion lawsuit alleging that the two companies discriminate against black-owned media companies by simply not carrying them.
The National Association of African-American Owned Media filed the suit in California last week, echoing their actions against DirectTV and AT&T from late last year. Comcast, however, is not the only defendant targeted — MSNBC show host Al Sharpton and various advocacy groups were named in the suit as well.
The suit alleges that TWC and Comcast intentionally avoid picking up networks that are fully owned by African Americans, and that allowing the two to merge would only compound the problem. Via the Hollywood Reporter:

According to the lawsuit, Comcast and TWC "collectively spend approximately $25 billion annually for the licensing of pay-television channels and advertising of their products and services, yet 100% African American-owned media receives less than $3 million per year."
At the time of Comcast's 2010 acquisition of NBCUniversal, Comcast entered into memoranda of understanding with the NAACP, the National Urban League and the National Action Network, but the lawsuit says the voluntary diversity agreements are "a sham, undertaken to whitewash Comcast’s discriminatory business practices."

The suit goes on the allege that the only “fully owned black-channel” Comcast has is the Africa Channel, which former NBCU/Comcast exec Paula Madison owns. Madsion, the suit says, was involved directly in “obtaining government approval for the Comcast acquisition of NBC Universal, thus creating a serious conflict of interest.” And, what’s more, the suit claims that Al Sharpton accepted $3.8 million through his National Action Network to help put a good face on the NBC Universal acquisition.
The evidence for that rationale ties back to Sharpton’s ratings:

The lawsuit goes on to say that Comcast made large cash "donations" to obtain support for its acquisition. The money includes $3.8 million to Sharpton and his National Action Network. The money, it's charged, was meant to pay Sharpton to endorse the NBCU deal and divert attention away from discrimination. As for Sharpton's MSNBC gig, the complaint says, "Despite the notoriously low ratings that Sharpton’s show generates, Comcast has allowed Sharpton to maintain his hosting position for more than three years in exchange for Sharpton’s continued public support for Comcast on issues of diversity." 

As for the other ostensibly black-owned channels that find themselves on Comcast’s roster, the plaintiffs say that they are ultimately treated as “window dressing” that use African-American icons as “fronts” for “white-owned business.” As a result, the suit claims that Comcast employs “Jim Crow”-style laws in licensing black-owned channels. 

“We’re not trying to create any more Bob Johnsons,” the suit alleges one Comcast exec to have said, speaking of the founder of the enormously successful Black Entertainment Television (BET).
Comcast has since released a statement regarding the lawsuit, stating that the company is "proud of our outstanding record supporting and fostering diverse programming":

“We do not generally comment on pending litigation, but this complaint represents nothing more than a string of inflammatory, inaccurate, and unsupported allegations. We are proud of our outstanding record supporting and fostering diverse programming, including programming from African American owned and controlled cable channels. We currently carry more than 100 networks geared toward diverse audiences, including multiple networks owned or controlled by minorities. 
Diversity organizations from across the country, including numerous diverse programmers, have supported our transaction with Time Warner Cable. That deal will extend our industry-leading commitment to diverse programming to even more homes across America, one of the reasons so many groups in the African American community have supported it. 
Comcast has engaged in good faith negotiations with this programmer for many years. It is disappointing that they have decided to file a frivolous lawsuit. We will defend vigorously against the scurrilous allegations in this complaint and fully expect that the court will dismiss them.” 

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