Entertainment Studios Faces a Supreme Challenge
General | Aug 22, 2019 | Carlos Castillo
Entertainment Studios’ epic legal battle with Comcast underscores my long-held contention that subtle systemic racism in the entertainment industry dwarfs the obvious racism that gets all the headlines.
If you went to the movies this weekend, you probably saw the shark suspense flick “47 Meters Down” playing. That’s being distributed by Entertainment Studios, which is owned by Byron Allen.
I remember when Allen was on “Real People” in the 1970s, so he’s been in the game for 40-plus years. He’s become a rarity—an African-American who owns a movie and TV studio.
My perception of Allen is not as a radical. An unabashed capitalist? Yes. Yet he is fighting a crucial battle on the race front, probably a battle he never expected.
Most of the black faces we see on TV and at the movie theater are hired hands. They have no ownership or control of the content they help create. For this reason, Allen is exceptional.
Entertainment Studios sued Comcast for discrimination. The company alleges that Comcast excluded Entertainment Studios’ channels from its distribution platforms because of Allen’s race. Lower courts found merit in the argument and cleared the way for the lawsuit to proceed, but Comcast appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The arguments are scheduled to be heard in November.
I won’t get too much into the legal thicket of this case; plenty of commentary out there on that. I firmly believe that systemic racism exists and there’s plenty of empirical and anecdotal evidence to support this conclusion. What interests me about this case are some of the side stories emanating from this legal dust-up:
- Despite adverse repercussions this case may have on established civil rights legislation, Allen alleges that civil rights organizations are reluctant to enter the fray because Comcast gives them money. This is a huge problem now and going forward as business behemoths look to co-opt people of color, especially as it relates to future antitrust legislation. We need to hold these organizations accountable for their actions or, in this case, inactions.
- On its Xfinity streaming platform, Comcast has a “Black Film & TV” choice on its “Browse” drop-down menu. Obviously Comcast has no compunction about making money with black content yet is reticent to do business with an established black owner of content. Allen criticizes Comcast for its hypocrisy in championing liberal voices (including many black political pundits such as Joy Reid and Al Sharpton) on MSNBC yet possibly weakening established civil rights legislation just to win this case.
- One of the fears is that the court will accept Comcast’s argument that business factors other than race were the reason it excluded Entertainment Studios’ channels and that the operative civil rights legislation invoked in the lawsuit would require race to be the sole reason for the lawsuit to proceed. This interpretation would have a chilling effect on racial discrimination. Look at the aforementioned empirical and anecdotal evidence that racism abounds throughout our society, from Hollywood to Wall Street to Silicon Valley. If a proven player such as Entertainment Studios, which has the coffers to fight this costly legal battle, can’t clear such a high burden of proof where does that leave the rest of us? The discrimination would have to be almost comically flagrant to have a chance in court. These big companies are too sophisticated to allow this to happen too many times.
The Entertainment Studios lawsuit should be a rallying cry for people of color to vote with their wallets and pressure Comcast to do the right thing. But, unfortunately, too many of us are caught up in our own selfish pursuits and missing our favorite TV shows is too much of a price to pay for justice.
By deploying our dollars strategically and letting brands such as Comcast know that we are paying attention to this case, we could exert the consumer pressure necessary to take it out of the court’s hands. That would not only benefit the Byron Allens of the world, but all of us.