Comcast faces backlash over black-ministry channel the Word

Two hundred chanting protesters clad in winter coats and earmuffs marched in single file outside Comcast's Center City headquarters Wednesday, holding placards reading, "Comcast Is Robbing Us" and "We Want Word Network."

A minister with a bullhorn yelled, "No justice!" The crowd, bused from Detroit over the previous 13 hours, responded, "No peace!" 

Comcast security swarmed the area. Down the block, CEO Brian Roberts and top company executive David Cohen ate lunch at Chops, separated from the street noise and protests by thick glass.

More than a decade ago, Kevin Adell, the publicity-wise chief executive and owner of the 24-hour black religious Word Network, targeted cable companies with similar protests to draw attention to his pay-for-air-time black religious channel. He was highly successful, winning carriage sufficient to make the Word more widely distributed to U.S. households today than ESPN, 97 million homes compared with 90 million.

Now, Adell is protesting the unwinding of some of that growth. Comcast plans to drop the network in 7 million U.S. homes and embrace a newer 24-hour African American religious channel, the Impact Network, which is owned by a black Detroit minister.

"I'm not going to take this lying down," Adell, who is white, said in a phone interview. "The Word is the top dog in the African American community. I'm already big." 

His race should not matter with Comcast, Adell said, noting that the No. 1 African American entertainment cable channel, BET, is owned by Viacom Inc. and that Comcast owns the No. 2 Hispanic channel, Telemundo.

Adell has not attended the Philadelphia protests that are being led by preachers with shows on the Word, but he seems to be digging in for a fight. He is seeking letters of support from prominent African Americans. Adell also has retained the Washington lawyer who represented Netflix when it opposed Comcast's $45 billion deal for Time Warner Cable Inc., plus a Washington lobbying firm.

Time could be running out, however. On Jan. 12, the Word will begin disappearing on Comcast systems in more than 400 towns and cities, according to a memo sent to the network in late 2016. Impact will launch simultaneously in those areas and, where possible, on the same channel. The Philadelphia-based cable giant ultimately will halve the Word's distribution from its current 14 million Comcast homes to 7 million.

Bishop Wayne T. Jackson, of Great Faith Ministries in Detroit, owns the Impact Network, which is distributed to 75 million homes on DirecTV, Dish,  and cable systems, including parts of Comcast. He said he was excited about the new Comcast homes.

"We did not come to Comcast and say, 'Give us distribution because we're black,' " Jackson said. "This was no cakewalk."

Having an African American religious channel owned by an African American is important, Jackson said, because "nobody knows your house like you do." In addition to preaching pastors, Jackson said, Impact will show education programs on health and financial well-being for African Americans.

News of the added Comcast homes came after a nationally televised visit by then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to Jackson's Detroit church in early September, leading some to think that Jackson's relationship with Trump helped with Comcast.

"This didn't just start with Donald Trump coming to my church. It's just a coincidence of all these events," said Jackson, who will speak at Trump's inauguration and called the Trump speculation ridiculous.

Comcast programming executives say that they like Impact's original shows and that it is owned by Jackson, which advances the company's goal of adding minority-owned channels. When it was negotiating to purchase NBCUniversal, Comcast said it would boost its portfolio of minority-owned cable channels as part of its commitment to civil-rights groups.

"We continuously evaluate the content we deliver to our customers," Comcast spokesman John Demming said last week. "As part of this ongoing process, we determined that the Impact Network provides a broader array of programming than the Word Network, which led us to our decision to increase Impact’s distribution. We are also continuing to carry the Word Network to millions of our customers in the Midwest and South based on its appeal in those regions.”

Adell launched the Word in the late 1990s, pitching it with black ministers to DirecTV. After winning over the big satellite-TV provider, Adell focused on AT&T and Charter Communications to broaden the Word's access into American homes.

The Wall Street Journal reported in 2003 that ministers were paid to protest in support of the Word. Adell said that he had not financed protesters against Comcast, but that he financially supports ministers who support him.

He said he did not know about Comcast’s decision to curb distribution of the Word Network until the company sent him a two-sentence memo in November. Comcast also provided a list of the towns and cities, including Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania suburbs and South Jersey, that would lose the Word.

To learn more about the decision, Adell said, he met in mid-November with Jennifer Gaiski, senior vice president of content acquisition for Comcast, in Philadelphia and told her he believed that Comcast had the capacity on its system for both the Word and Impact.

The Rev. W.J. Rideout III, an African American pastor from Detroit, led the call-and-response at Wednesday's Philadelphia protest. He has a show on the Word and says he did not want to  lose 7 million Comcast viewers.

The Word has aggregated a large audience, Rideout said.

And he added,  "I don't care if Kevin is white."