Ion, Johnson take cooperation to new level


Paperwork has been filed at the FCC to make Ion Media and Urban Television co-channel licensees of 42 television stations in major and large markets. Urban will be 51% owned by BET founder Robert L. Johnson’s RLJ Companies. Ion will hold the remaining 49%. According to RLJ spokesperson Traci Otey Blunt, Urban will provide a continuous programming stream on their licensed and shared spectrum, as will Ion, via a split-stream digital operation – Urban will be Ion’s fourth such digital channel. The hinge is carriage – the principals are betting that as a co-licensee, Urban will be able to demand a spot on cable and other MVPD channel lineups.

R. Brandon Burgess is President/CEO of Ion; Urban will be 51% owned by BET founder Robert L. Johnson’s RLJ Companies. Ion will hold the remaining 49%.

As time-sharing co-licensee of each of the television stations, Urban will provide a continuous programming stream. Meanwhile, Ion will be operating the same as they have been, with their main programming stream alongside a children’s stream and a health/wellness stream.

RLJ is using the promise of adding diversity of ownership and programming to attract support in Washington. According to the filing, the stations will be used “…to launch a new programming format, including informational and issue-focused programming that is targeted to serve the needs and interests of African-American viewers and other underserved members of the 42 communities that are the subject of these applications.”

The hinge will be cable carriage, and the companies are betting that as co-licensee, rather than lessor and side-channel tenant, Urban will be entitled to full carriage privileges. Otey Blunt said the companies looked at the existing body of regulation and tried to follow an approach that works within the framework of the rules. But they want FCC confirmation.

In the filing, they wrote, “One of the primary factors determining the viability of a new television broadcast station – and, in particular, a broadcast station serving the needs of an underserved group – is adequate distribution to members of its community. Carriage by local multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) is therefore an essential element of the success of Urban’s new programming service. Because the Share-Time Licenses will authorize Urban to operate a new station in each of the 42 markets, Urban will be entitled to mandatory carriage of its primary video stream in each market where it operates a station. In order to avoid disputes with MVPDs that would undermine any realistic opportunity of Urban’s fledgling station group to survive, the parties respectfully request that the Commission confirm, concurrent with grant of this application, that Urban’s stations would be entitled to carriage under the Commission’s rules.”

RBR/TVBR observation: What a stunningly clever idea. This is basically media watchdog Andrew Schwartzman’s idea of granting cable carriage to side-channel renters, but on major steroids. The difference is that as co-licensee Urban will have far more standing to demand carriage than a tenant would. We have no idea how the FCC will view this – it’ll love the diversity aspects but may have problems with the technicalities. But look for cable companies to hate it.