NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- As it turns out, minority programming became the linchpin to Comcast's expensive and hard-fought campaign to win federal approval for its merger with NBC Universal. In what some observers saw as a cynical, yet savvy ploy, the cable giant specifically sought to appease Federal Communications Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat who had expressed concerns that the merger would drown out diverse voices in an increasingly conglomerated media world.
Comcast put her at ease by agreeing to add at least four African-American-managed or -owned cable networks and four Latino-owned or -managed networks over the next eight years, as well as some English-language programming geared toward Asian Americans. Subsequently, Ms. Clyburn voted to approve the merger in a 4-1 ruling that turned Comcast into what some now see as the most powerful media company on the planet.
Eight more minority-owned or minority-managed channels would seem to be good news for general-market marketers that say they want to spend in the minority media sector but often can't find enough places to put their money. But will that actually help marketers looking to spend more advertising dollars in the sector?
It's a touchy subject and one that few industry executives would publicly say was even a matter of concern. Over the years, major marketers have openly stated their commitment to spend more advertising dollars in minority media, whether in TV, magazines or newspapers, but goals varied from company to company and were entirely voluntary, making it a fairly opaque process. Companies did not have to answer to any independent body or open their books to show exactly how much they had spent in minority-owned media. In addition, there were questions over what constituted minority ownership or management.
"What is minority-owned media?" one media buyer asked. "BET is owned by Viacom, and they say they're urban content, but if a channel like BET doesn't get what they want, they start accusing people of being biased."
Most marketers, according to this person, are looking to reach as many consumers as possible, regardless of ethnicity, and reaching out to minority media is often done separately, typically as part of a corporate "goodwill" initiative, without any real concern over the advertising's effectiveness. "When they do that, it doesn't come out of the advertising budget," the buyer said.
Comcast's concessions came partly under pressure from various advocacy groups, which underscores that these new channels, which are yet to be named, were borne out of a political arrangement instead of a business one.
"I have to admit to being always a little bit skeptical to corporate actions that are being defined first and foremost as actions taken because of the twisting of elbows," said Jeff Yang, VP-global media entertainment technology at consumer research firm Iconoculture and a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. "I'm not saying that these initiatives are going to fail," he continued. "I do think, however, we need to be vigilant that these types of investment are not seen as nominal bones thrown to allay the very real concerns on the part of minority advocates."
Whether Comcast's merger with NBC Universal will make it any easier for companies looking to make those "goodwill" commitments, however, is still unknown.
"It's hard to say if the merger means anything to our clients about minority groups," said Ethan Heftman, senior VP-director of national broadcast at Initiative. "Decisions around that are similar to every other decision we make for our clients -- it's about what business opportunity are they trying to fulfill?"