Diversity delayed

African-American independent channels still await carriage

One year after getting approval from AT & T to sign up its individual cable systems, African-American start-up MBC still doesn't have a single subscriber from the MSO.

And four months after signing a pact with HITS (AT & T's digital distribution satellite, Headend in the Sky), the channel has yet to get carriage.

AT & T's top cable executive thought otherwise when he told a mostly African-American audience that MBC was launched in Chicago, Atlanta and Boston. Dan Somers, president and CEO of AT & T Broadband, made the remark at last week's NAMIC gathering (née National Association of Minorities in Cable). Somers was one of five CEOs participating in a discussion about minority access in the business. An AT & T spokesman later said Somers misspoke but had recently met with MBC principals and was working to get space for the channel.

"It's time for us to deploy these services," Somers said during the discussion. "It's time for us to bring it to the market."

So what's the holdup? Stock volatility, market sensitivity, technology issues, Somers responded-stuff that keeps megacorporations like AT & T from turning on a dime.

"There's no excuse, with the number of channels we have, for operators not to give new minority networks distribution on their platforms," said Joe Lawson, president of NAMIC and former programming executive for Bresnan Communication. "Giving these networks distribution is something that all MSOs say they're for, but we hope that they'll do more than just say it, and sign some deals and get people some carriage."

MBC also said it has been waiting for a signature on a Time Warner deal.

MBC (Major Broadcasting Cable) Network has about 1 million subscribers, mostly from Comcast. The network targets African-American families, a slightly older demographic than the one served by BET, the only widely available African-American network and one in which AT & T owns interest through Liberty Media. The other African-American start-up in play is New Urban Entertainment, or NUE TV. Both networks are owned by African-Americans trying to get carriage the old-fashioned way: the pitch. MBC is offering $1 launch fees, 10 years free on analog, 5 cents a month per subscriber on digital, according to one source. NUE is looking for license fees from the get-go. Both networks have about $200 million behind them.