A Sorry Moment in the History of American Media

We just experienced a shameful milestone in the history of U.S. media — and barely anyone noticed.

There are now zero black-owned and operated full-power TV stations in our country.*

This sorry state of affairs is the culmination of a trend that started in the late 1990s when Congress and the Federal Communications Commission allowed massive consolidation in the broadcasting industry. This policy shift crowded out existing owners of color and ensured that it would be nearly impossible for new owners to access the public airwaves. Recent FCC actions (and in some cases, inaction) have only hastened this decline in opportunities for diverse broadcasters.

From Little … to Nothing

When Free Press released its first report on the state of TV ownership in 2006, we found that there were only 18 African American-owned and operated full-power commercial TV stations — representing just 1.3 percent of all such stations.

By December 2012, those 18 had shrunk to just five. And now they’re all gone.

Roberts Broadcasting, a black-owned media company, just announced a deal to sell its three remaining full-power TV stations to ION Media Networks for nearly $8 million.

Once considered a phenomenal success story in an industry known for its stunning lack of diversity, Roberts Broadcasting was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2011.

This decline stemmed primarily from Viacom’s decision to shutter the UPN network, which Roberts had affiliated with due to UPN’s unique focus on programming featuring portrayals of African Americans.

Roberts Broadcasting’s exit from the market comes on the heels of the departures of two other prominent black owners.

In late October, the Sinclair Broadcast Group continued its buying spree by acquiring a Fox affiliate in Portland, Me., from a company helmed by Charles Glover, a funk musician turned broadcaster. That same month, Access.1 Communications agreed to sell its Atlantic City NBC station to Locus Point Networks.

New Jersey residents are up in arms about the deal: Locus Point is expected to close the station and give up its license as the FCC takes broadcast stations off the air and auctions those airwaves to cellphone companies.

Broken Promises

It’s hard to fathom the sorry state of broadcast ownership during the administration of our nation’s first black president. After all, during his first presidential campaign, President Obama pledged to “encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media.”

But that hasn’t happened.

Public interest and civil rights groups have warned the FCC that its policies allowing for greater media consolidation were going to push out the few remaining people of color who owned broadcast stations.

Media consolidation has made it harder for people of color to own broadcast stations because it raises entry barriers for small owners. Concentration makes it harder for any small owner to compete, and the few non-white broadcast licensees we have are far more likely to be small owners who control just a handful of stations or a single broadcast outlet.

Our nation’s history of discrimination created a lack of wealth in communities of color, and without access to capital, people of color find themselves permanently on the outside. And for those few owners of color who have been able to acquire stations, consolidation has made it harder for them to compete against larger and better-financed media conglomerates.

Can It Get Any Worse? Yes, It Can

If you think this situation can’t get worse, think again.

While owning a full-power TV station has been out of reach for most people of color, low-power TV has offered an opportunity to get into this otherwise closed industry.

Low-power TV commercial stations serve smaller areas than their full-power counterparts, and often lack legal protections, including guaranteed carriage by cable and satellite providers.

Consequently, they’re far cheaper to own.

At the end of 2011, the FCC reported that people of color owned 15 percent of all low-power TV stations, compared to just 3 percent of full-power TV outlets.

But this small ray of hope is expected to dim as the prospect of an auction to cellphone companies could drive out the owners of these low-power TV stations too.

The FCC is preparing to conduct that incentive auction in the next year or two. As a result, speculators have been buying up both low- and full-power TV stations in an effort to cash in.

This fervent speculation is creating a climate where many existing owners are forced to sell (as their creditors are more interested in pocketing a financial windfall than serving the community). We’re already seeing several full- and low-power owners of color exiting the market.

Will New FCC Leadership Bring Change We Can Believe In?

The FCC has a long and pitiful track record here, failing to promote or even preserve what little ownership diversity remains.

There’s hope this could change now that the agency has a new chairman.

But leaders have to lead.

In this case, that means the new FCC has to acknowledge that we’re well beyond a crisis point. Its own policies are responsible for the shameful state of minority ownership.

The elimination of black owners is a tragedy, but the FCC must take action to address its own failures.

*Update: The owner of WJYS in the Chicago DMA did not identify as African American in the 2011 FCC ownership filing we based our reporting here on. However, in previous filings, the station's co-owners self-identified as African American. And in its most recent filing, posted on the FCC site after our report came out, the owners selected every race. Read below for additional information and context.

The information in this article is based on our analysis of the FCC's Form 323 biennial filings, which the FCC uses to determine the racial and ethnic makeup of our nation’s broadcast owners.

After we published this post, the Oxford Media Group (formerly Jovon Broadcasting), owner of WJYS, filed its 323 form for 2013.

The form was posted on the FCC’s website on Dec. 30, 2013. In that filing, the Form 323 for the station identified its two co-owners as belonging to every possible race.

In the firm's 2011 filing, these two owners self-identified as belonging to "two races" with no race specified. However, in older filings, the co-owners self-identified as African American.

It is of course entirely up to the station owners to determine how they self-identify, but we have updated this post to reflect the possibility of one remaining black-owned full-power commercial TV station.

We have reached out to the law firm that filed the latest ownership forms for the station. We will update this post further if additional information comes to light.


People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good