Johnson outlines Urban experiment plans


BET founder and RLJ Companies honcho Robert Johnson is currently trying to get a proposal through the FCC to gain co-licensee status for 42 Ion Media television stations and with it, must carry status. However, his plans for a new Urban Television network will be a departure from the traditional television network model. Johnson is looking to form partnerships with various niche programmers, who will acquire blocks of time on the fledgling net and sell their own advertising. In effect, Johnson will be in a partnership with Ion in order to form partnerships with other innovative programmers. Black, Hispanic gay and other niches are expected to be in the mix. The concept will be duplicated on a related internet site. According to Reuters, it will be called Point of U.

Law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP recently blogged on the Ion/Urban concept of shared licensing triggering must-carry requirements for more than one digital television stream, calling it a novel concept, and agreeing with earlier TVBR predictions of stiff resistance from the MVPD community. LWT also noted that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has seemed inclined to favor such arrangements in order to forward diversity, and that similar proposals have come from the watchdog community.

According to reports, Ion Media has launched a campaign on Capitol Hill to earn must-carry rights for all of its split-stream programming, which in addition to Ion includes a children’s net Qubo and a health/fitness channel.

RBR/TVBR observation: It will be extremely interesting to see how this plays out. Back in the dawn of digital regulation, former FCC Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree predicted that split-stream must-carry would be a no-brainer on the theory that each broadcast television station’s allotted 6 MHz of cable bandwidth is, well, 6 MHz of bandwidth, whether it is being used for one high-def program stream of a collection of split screens. Efforts to write the regs with that in mind have gone nowhere, however, and the failure of the big networks to figure out how to monetize split streams eliminated any big drive to push forward.

Split streams are being used in small markets to bring in nets not otherwise available due to a dearth of stations (like CW, MNT, Spanish-language nets, etc.). There are a handful of syndicated programming services going the side-channel route, and many stations use one for 24-hour weather.

Had broadcasters pushed hard to overcome MVPD resistance to the Ferree must-carry model, there would be no need for Ion and Urban to try the co-licensee gambit – they could simply form an LMA. We strongly suspect that MVPDs will not want to see the Ion/Urban partnership morph from a novel proposition to an unwelcome precedent. Sparks should fly.