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Sean Combs Slams ‘Illusion of Economic Inclusion’ at Comcast Amid Byron Allen Fight

Sean Combs has come out swinging against Comcast in a lengthy statement prompted by the cable giant’s legal battle with Entertainment Studios chief Byron Allen.

Combs accused Comcast of maintaining “the illusion of economic inclusion” in its handling of a carriage agreement with Combs’ Revolt TV channel. Combs was critical of Comcast for failing to distribute the hip-hip music and lifestyle channel broadly across all of its cable systems. The statement came in response to the Supreme Court hearing held Nov. 13 on matters related to Allen’s 2015 racial discrimination lawsuit against Comcast.

Allen has accused Comcast of violating civil rights law by declining to carry the suite of seven niche cable channels owned by Entertainment Studios. Comcast has pointed to its distribution pact with Revolt TV and others as evidence that it does not discriminate against African American-owned outlets.

Revolt was one of 10 new channels from independent owners that Comcast has launched in the past nine years after setting an agreement with the federal government to help nurture new channels from a diverse group of owners as a condition of securing approval for its acquisition of NBCUniversal in January 2011. Revolt TV bowed in October 2013.

“The start we received from Comcast, which was a condition of the United States government approval for Comcast to acquire NBCUniversal, was important, but it is not the level of support needed to build a successful African American owned network. Not even close,” Combs said. “Since that launch our relationship has not grown, and Revolt is still not carried by Comcast in the most affordable packages nor is Revolt available in all of the markets that would enable us to serve our target audience. Comcast spends billions of dollars on content networks every year, but just a few million go to African American owned networks like Revolt. That is unacceptable.”

Comcast has vehemently denied that racial bias played any part in its decision to not carry Allen’s seven lifestyle channels. (Comcast does carry the Weather Channel, which Allen’s company acquired in 2018.) In response to Combs, David Cohen, Comcast’s senior executive VP and chief diversity officer, said in a statement that Comcast has “an unmatched record” supporting independent programmers.

“Comcast is proud of our strong commitment to diversity and inclusion, including an unmatched record of supporting diverse and independent networks, carrying 160 independent networks like Revolt, 100 of which are targeted to diverse audiences,” Cohen said. “We are also proud to have launched eight new minority owned cable channels since 2011, including being the first company to launch Revolt and to bring the channel into millions of homes. From the start, we provided a long-term commitment to carriage of the channel and to its success as well as other African American owned channels that we carry on our systems.”

Combs was also critical of Comcast’s legal strategy in the Allen case. He asserted that Comcast’s argument at the Supreme Court could lead to a weakening of civil rights laws. At the hearing, attorneys for Comcast and Allen squared off over a narrow issue of legal procedure that could decide whether the burden of proof in the case falls on Allen or on Comcast.

“To be clear, anything that makes it harder to fight against discrimination is wrong. Comcast is choosing to be on the wrong side of history,” Combs said.

Comcast said the comments from Supreme Court justices during last week’s hearing gave strong indications that the jurists see the issue at stake in the hearing as “somewhat academic,” in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, and not a threat to broader civil rights protections. Allen’s case turns on a federal statute from 1866 designed to ensure that black Americans have the same right to make and enforce contracts as white people.

“We are fierce defenders of the civil rights of minorities and women in America – and of the civil rights laws,” Cohen said. “It has always been our intention to maintain the strength of the civil rights laws, and we believe a review of the oral argument at the Supreme Court demonstrates that. Based on the oral argument, any fears that this case would have broad implications on civil rights enforcement have been proven unfounded.”

Below are the full statements from Combs and Comcast.

Sean Combs:

My name and my network, REVOLT, have been mentioned recently by Comcast in reference to the Comcast/Byron Allen US Supreme Court case as an example of Comcast’s inclusive practices with respect to African American owned cable networks. While it is true that we are in business with Comcast, it is not accurate to use my name or my network as an example of inclusion.  I do not want my name to be used inaccurately so I must speak my truth. I also want to make clear that this case is now about much more than cable distribution. It’s about the civil rights of millions of African Americans and other minorities.

First, it’s important that people really understand what’s at stake. In its efforts to get the lawsuit filed by Byron Allen dismissed, Comcast has taken a legal approach that could weaken fundamental civil rights protections. I have a problem with this. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 section 1981 was designed to ensure Black people are able to do business in this country and not be denied because of race.  Comcast is arguing that this law only applies if racial discrimination is the only factor that leads to a refusal to do business, which would be extremely hard to prove. If they are successful, it will become much harder for any victim of discrimination to seek justice in court.  By taking this stance in the Supreme Court, Comcast has put its legal tactics ahead of the rights of millions of Americans to be heard. This is not OK.

Above anything else, my goal has always been to achieve true economic inclusion for Black people.  How can Comcast suggest that it champions diversity and inclusion if it attacks the laws that provide the foundation for economic inclusion? What good are any of their efforts if they are fighting to make it harder for victims of discrimination to be heard in court? Comcast has made this about much more than Byron Allen, and now the civil rights of my children and my community are at stake. To be clear, anything that makes it harder to fight against discrimination is wrong. Comcast is choosing to be on the wrong side of history.

On REVOLT, I can only share the truth of my experience.  Starting an independent cable network is incredibly difficult and capital intensive. The start we received from Comcast, which was a condition of the United States government approval for Comcast to acquire NBCUniversal, was important, but it is not the level of support needed to build a successful African American owned network. Not even close. Since that launch our relationship has not grown, and REVOLT is still not carried by Comcast in the most affordable packages nor is REVOLT available in all of the markets that would enable us to serve our target audience. Comcast spends billions of dollars on content networks every year, but just a few million go to African American owned networks like REVOLT. That is unacceptable.

Supporting diversity and economic inclusion requires a real partnership.  The only way Black owned networks grow and thrive is with meaningful and consistent economic support. Otherwise they are set up to fail. REVOLT has never been in a position to truly compete on a fair playing field because it has not received the economic and distribution support necessary for real economic inclusion. Our relationship with Comcast is the illusion of economic inclusion. 

Rather than using this case to diminish the civil rights protections of millions of Americans, Comcast should use this as an opportunity to listen to a community it relies on and, above all, do better.

Comcast’s David Cohen:

Comcast is proud of our commitment to diversity and inclusion and the recognition we have received for being a top company for D&I in America.  We have a strong record for diversity in our workforce, in our supplier chain, in our community impact, and in our programming – both in terms of distribution to our customers and content creation.  In fact, Comcast has an unmatched record of supporting diverse and independent networks, carrying 160 independent networks like Revolt, 100 of which are targeted to diverse audiences.  We understand that viewers want and deserve greater diversity in and broader access to quality content.  And we are working hard to satisfy those customer preferences.

We are proud to have launched eight new minority owned cable channels since 2011, including being the first company to launch Revolt.  Our initial carriage deal, which was negotiated with Revolt represented a true partnership to bring the channel into millions of homes.  From the start, we provided a long-term commitment to carriage of the channel and to its success as well as other African American owned channels that we carry on our systems.   Revolt understood from the outset that we are only one company in a complex video ecosystem representing only about 20% of homes, and that to be successful, programmers need carriage beyond Comcast.

We are fierce defenders of the civil rights of minorities and women in America – and of the civil rights laws.  Any characterization of our cable programming dispute with Byron Allen as an attack on the civil rights laws is simply not accurate.  If there was ever any question about that issue, any objective examination of the arguments at the Supreme Court demonstrate that there has been no attempt to undermine the civil rights laws.  Comcast’s focus has always been limited to restoring the interpretation of Section 1981 to the way it has been interpreted for decades everywhere in this country other than in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.  None of the Supreme Court Justices seemed to see this case as an opportunity to narrow or weaken the civil rights laws, and instead focused on the narrow technical issue that we raised.  The fears that this case would have broad implications on civil rights enforcement should be put to rest  after the oral argument.

In the end, this case will not make it harder for victims of discrimination to be heard, and will have no long-run implications for civil rights enforcement in the U.S.”

(Pictured: Sean Combs)

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