Comcast Corp. announced Tuesday that it will start carrying four new minority-owned networks - in partial fulfillment of a deal with regulators and minority groups that paved the way for the Philadelphia company to take over NBCUniversal last year.
The channels, backed by NBA Hall of Famer Earvin "Magic" Johnson, superstar entertainer Sean "Diddy" Combs and others, are scheduled to launch broadly on Comcast Cable systems between April and January 2014, Comcast said.
"I salute them for keeping their word," said Rev. Al Sharpton, one of three African American leaders to sign an agreement on a wide range of minority issues with Comcast in December 2010. "I think they are living up to the memorandum of understanding," Sharpton said in an interview Tuesday.
Comcast received more than 100 proposals, about 80 in the African American category and about 20 in the Hispanic American category, far more than expected, said David Jensen, Comcast vice president for content acquisition.
"What it really showed us is the tremendous pent up demand . . . for programming shelf space," from African Americans and Hispanic Americans, Jensen said. "These are two really under served demographics."
The company did not disclose a time frame for the networks' launches to digital-basic customers in the Philadelphia market.
Comcast regularly comes under pressure to expand its cable lineup. Last week, 40 demonstrators descended on its headquarters to demand that it add Al-Jazeera English (AJE).
When Comcast took control of NBC Universal in a $30 billion deal, it agreed to launch 10 new independently owned and operated networks over eight years, including four majority-owned by African Americans, two majority-owned by Latino Americans, two operated by American Latino programmers, and two that will provide additional independent programming.
The agreements called for Comcast, the nation's largest cable firm with 22.3 million subscribers, to launch two African American channels and one Hispanic American channel starting this year.
"We just got so many good options," Jensen said. "We had two really great Hispanic channels, so we decided to do both of them, rather than just one."
The African American channels are:
Aspire, led by "Magic" Johnson, will have family programming and is scheduled to launch by this summer. The channel, based in Atlanta, is a partnership with family-friendly GMC TV. Johnson said in a news release that the new network will appeal to all generations.
Revolt, a music and news channel backed by Combs, also known as Diddy and P. Diddy, and former MTV programming chief Andy Shuon, is expected to launch next year. In its challenge to MTV and BET, Revolt is designed to incorporate the speed of social networking.
The Hispanic channels are:
El Rey, proposed by movie director Robert Rodriguez and partners at FactoryMade Ventures, will be an "action-packed general entertainment network in English," featuring Hispanic producers, celebrities, and public figures. The network has agreed to launch by January 2014.
BabyFirst Americas, an affiliate of BabyFirstTV, a five-year-old network already available on Comcast and other carriers, is a Hispanic educational network for infants, very young children, and their parents. Produced by Spanish-language television veteran Constantino "Said" Schwarz, the network is expected to launch by April.
Alex Nogales, president and chief executive of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which has offices in Pasadena, Calif., and Washington, said the news was exciting and that control was key.
"As long as they are significantly Latino owned and operated, that is what is important to us," Nogales said.
Nogales said it is important to have English-language programming for Hispanics. "It isn't that we all speak Spanish," he said.
Sharpton said it was understandable that Comcast chose networks backed by celebrity entrepreneurs because they have the contacts to make the networks successful. The alternative would have been for Comcast to choose people already in broadcasting.
"Some of us have mixed feelings, but the potential outweighs our concerns," Sharpton said.