Rapper and producer Sean "Diddy" Combs, director Robert Rodriguez, and basketball legend Magic Johnson each now has his own new cable TV networks. Their channels were part of a merger deal Comcast made with the FCC to give a shot to new networks owned by African Americans, Latinos and others.
Last month, Combs threw on his classic Puff Daddy alias to welcome millennial viewers to his new music network, Revolt.
"This is really happening, people," the rapper said at the launch. "A boy from Harlem is really standing on a stoop in Brooklyn launching a network worldwide. The revolution is now being televised."
Next month, Rodriguez will introduce young English-speaking Latinos to El Rey, on which he's partnered with Spanish-language network Univision to produce an action-packed lineup, including a new Latino James Bond-style series.
"El Rey is going to be the king of content," he says. "Iconic, addictive, exciting, visceral television."
Diversity on and off the screen
El Rey and Revolt are Comcast's latest moves on diversity. For years, civil-rights groups have pointed to the dearth of programming for and by African Americans, Latinos and Asians. So when media giant Comcast announced plans to merge with NBC Universal, it was a chance for regulators to demand more cable networks owned and run by people of color.
As a condition of the merger's approval, Comcast promised the FCC it would distribute new "minority-owned" networks. Out of the gate, well, first was Baby First America — for bilingual infants aged 0 to 3.
Next came Aspire, a family-oriented network from ex-basketball star and entertainment impresario Magic Johnson. Its lineup includes reruns of The Cosby Show plus even older fare: Julia, Soul Train and The Flip Wilson Show.
Writer Anita Wilson Pringle, for one, is no fan of that lineup of TV retreads.
"He promised innovative, new fresh ideas, new fresh programming, and it's not," she says.
Pringle is upset that Aspire's managers were merely reshuffled from the old Gospel Music Channel. And she says the people Aspire is supposed to serve — African Americans — don't exactly need more reruns or talk shows.
"It's crap, if you really want to know the truth," she says. "But my thing is, they did this to break that monopoly that Comcast was having on all these stations, and all that has happened is that Comcast has a stronger monopoly."
Trying to find their footing
Washington insiders who were close to Comcast's FCC deal say no one expects these networks to survive. But Comcast's vice president of multicultural services, Ruben Mendiola, disagrees. In fact, he says Comcast plans to host a total of 10 independent channels over the next few years.
"Independent networks sometimes have a little bit of a problem [finding] their footing in America," he says. "And I think what we do is guarantee distribution for these networks so people can discover the channels and give it a try."
Comcast is counting on the celebrity entrepreneurs to attract audiences and advertisers. Rodriguez is bankrolling much of El Rey's programming himself, and already has a quarter of a billion dollars for production. And Revolt is also off to a good start, according to general manager Keith Clinkscales.
"It's easy for skeptics to say, well, they don't expect these networks to work," he says. "But I don't think anybody sent that memo to Sean Combs."
Bilingual babies, fans of classic black TV shows, millennial music fiends, action-addicted Latinos: Ultimately, it's viewers who'll decide whether the new networks are worth having Comcast become an even bigger conglomerate.