Efforts underway to pressure Comcast into keeping Starz channels

Demonstrators from the #KeepStarz campaign rally earlier this outside of Comcast headquarters in Philadelphia. The demonstration coincided with a rally held outside of Supreme Court in protest of Comcast's case against producer Bryon Allen (Photo courtesy of The Philadelphia Tribune).-SUBMITTED PHOTO

By Ayana Jones

PHILADELPHIA — A grassroots campaign is pressuring Comcast to keep Starz as part of its cable packages.

The telecommunications company plans to swap Epix for 17 Starz channels in its lineup starting on Dec. 10, and make Starz a $12 per month add-on for its customers.

“A lot of people are upset because they feel like Starz shows a lot of shows that Black people can understand,” said Deserie Jones, Philadelphia field director for The Black Institute, the nonprofit that has launched the #KeepStarz campaign.

Starz is known for diverse programming that appeals to the African-American community, with Starz in Black and Starz Encore Black (two channels dedicated to Black shows and movies) and original shows such as “Power,” “Survivor’s Remorse” and “Warriors of Liberty City.” The cable network also has distribution rights to “Luther,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” “Diff’rent Strokes” and “Sanford & Son.”

Bertha Lewis, president of The Black Institute and a key architect of the #KeepStarz campaign, said the new charge for Starz is a “Black tax.”

Organizers of the #KeepStarz campaign have been canvassing predominantly Black neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, D.C., collecting signatures on petitions asking Comcast to keep Starz on the air.

Lewis said some consumers have told TBI organizers that they already cancelled their Comcast service due to rising prices.

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And others are upset about the possibility of paying more to access Starz.

“The cable companies are already charging out the wazoo,” she said.

The controversy comes as Comcast is negotiating with Lionsgate, the owner of Starz, over carriage renewal.

“We are continuing to negotiate to try to reach a deal with Starz that makes sense for us and our customers. Over the last decade, the video marketplace has evolved dramatically, with more and more streaming and direct-to-consumer offerings,” Comcast representatives said in an e-mailed statement.

“Consistent with this trend, Starz makes its content available a-la-carte on Amazon Prime and Roku and direct to consumers through the Starz app. All we are asking for is the same treatment.”

“No matter the outcome of the ongoing discussions, no Comcast customer will lose access to Starz since it is available on Amazon Prime, including through Comcast’s X1 platform (though not exclusively), and many other online outlets,” the statement continued.

The move by Comcast to make Starz an add-on has garnered criticism from members of Congress and other lawmakers.

According to the New York Post, several members of Congress, including Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, who is part of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership team, wrote a letter to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts noting that programming on Starz “is of particular significance to the African-American community.”

Comcast is also in the midst of a high-profile lawsuit, in which media mogul Byron Allen has accused the company of racial bias and civil rights violations for its refusal to carry some of his channels.

Allen, who filed his suit in California in 2015, is seeking $20 billion in damages.

Lower courts threw out Allen’s lawsuit three times before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules last year that the district court had “improperly” dismissed it. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and both parties made oral arguments before the justices earlier this month. The Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling in the spring.

Comcast has defended its record in regard to diversity.

A company spokesperson noted that Comcast currently carries other networks aimed at African-American audiences such as BET, OWN, TV One, Aspire, Revolt, AFRO and Bounce TV. The company has invested in more than 8,000 hours of diverse programming on its on-demand platforms, the spokesperson said.

Aryanna Jones is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.