Asian-Americans hope merger is turning point for Comcast

Yang said he was initially optimistic when Comcast created AZN out of the International Channel, but grew more skeptical as it became clear the cable giant was more interested in the tax benefits of the transaction than creating a viable network.

"The reality is most cable channels take seven to 10 years to reach profitablity. Comcast clearly did it for the tax dodge," Yang said.

"This was seen initially as an attempt to create a platform for Asian-Americans and it was revealed to be something of a scam. That spurned a lot of people in the community."

Narasaki said she met with Comcast executives after AZN closed in April 2008 to express concerns about potential damage to the community and to discuss alternatives such as offering more Asian-American video content on demand.

She said Comcast attributed the decision to AZN's lack of profitability and showed interest in the potential of Asian-Americans as a market.

"At the time, part of their position was, 'we don't provide content,' " Narasaki said. "We felt the challenge for Asian-American filmmakers was to find distribution channels. We're not asking for them to create content, we're there to figure out how could Comcast increase distribution opportunities for work created by Asian-Americans."

Comcast's argument went out the window more than a year ago when Comcast announced it would be purchasing a majority stake in NBC Universal, which owns one of the four broadcast networks, cable networks, theme parks, film studios and local NBC affiliates — putting Comcast squarely in the content business.

After Comcast announced its intent to acquire NBC from GE, Narasaki said her organization sat down with NBC Universal executive vice president for diversity Paula Madison to express their concerns, including the lack of channels and programming aimed specifically at Asian-Americans.

"There's a lot of Asian language programming, which is great, a lot of that is based out of Asian countries," Madison said, referencing Comcast's highly profitable channel of Bollywood movies, among others.

"That's important because a significant part of the community is foreign-born. But there's also a growing Asian-American population that speaks English and is interested in content that includes our stories."

Those concerns are particularly salient with regards to NBC, which has established a track record under Madison of aggressively recruiting Asian-Americans for positions in the television industry, where job openings are often not posted publicly and most candidates are referred by friends or family members.

"It's very difficult if you were not born into the industry," Narasaki said. "We saw [the merger] as an opportunity to strengthen NBC and Universal's efforts. ... The last decade really focused on television; we're excited about opening up the film side."

Madison said almost 40 percent of NBC's pages are now minorities and the company has made a concerted effort to increase recruitment at colleges. She also pointed to corporate programs designed to increase the number of minority writers, actors and directors.

"I would say that as a result of Comcast acquiring NBC Universal, our commitment to diversity is stronger and bigger," Madison said when asked how the merger would affect NBC's ongoing efforts.

Comcast responded to the community's concerns by eventually agreeing to a series of conditions designed to increase the opportunities for Asian-Americans in the television and film industry, centered around a commitment to launch or expand a 24/7 English-language channel targeting Asian-Americans.

"One thing that has really impressed me, Comcast was somewhat of a late-comer to the issue of diversity, but now I think they've seriously embraced it," Narasaki said. "We're very excited about [the channel], it was a tough negotiation."

Madison said the commitments center around five areas: corporate governance; workforce recruitment and retention; procurement; programming; and philanthropy and community investments. There will also be a governance council made up of nine representatives from Asian-American advocacy groups.

"Comcast is saying it will be different this time, honey," Yang said. "One thing that makes me feel optimistic is a lot more eyes will be watching The AAJC and other organizations involved have been there for a long time. If things don't go as promised, we'll know about it fast."

"The [memoranda of understanding] are all public documents. Comcast and NBC Universal made these commitments because we intend to keep them," Madison said.

One thing all sides agree on is that the ability of activists to drive progress is reaching a natural conclusion, putting the onus on Asian-American writers, directors and producers to take advantage of the programs being put in place.

While Asian-Americans are increasingly represented on- and off-screen, both Yang and Narasaki pointed out that aside from NBC's "Outsourced," they are rarely the focus of a show's plot.

"We've certainly made progress over the last 10 years, but the challenge is it's not consistent and it's not always steadily forward," Narasaki said, citing TV executives' ongoing reluctance to cast Asian-Americans as romantic leads or in more three-dimensional roles.

"We're excited about 'Outsourced' but [an Asian-American] is still not the central character. It's been well over a decade since "All-American Girl," starring Margaret Cho, had an Asian at the center of the show. It's still one of the objectives."

Yang suggested the rise of digital content and reality television helped usher Asian faces onto the screen, making executives more comfortable casting them for scripted series.

"That said, the point is even though we have more numbers, we don't have the kind of representation that looks like real creative parity," Yang said. "That's a battle to be won on the creative front, it's very difficult to fight that battle in the streets and on the corporate front."

Narasaki said getting to that point would mean expanding the number of Asian-Americans behind the camera.

"Part of our theory is the more Asian-Americans and other minorities writing and producing content, the more likely we are to get that," Narasaki said.

"Ultimately to create successful, three-dimensional roles you need robust creative talents," Yang said.

Madison agreed, and noted NBC has several programs aimed at minority writers and is constantly searching for new minority talent.

"Entry into the writer's room is not an easy thing to accomplish without a track record or having gone to [the American Film Institute] or [the University of Southern California]," Madison said. "The business is largely dependent on relationships. We're trying to create opportunities to create a relationship with show runners to your talent can be seen."

Yang said the issue would remain contentious until there are enough Asian-Americans in the film and TV industry that the presence of one on-screen or in the writer's room is no longer noteworthy.

"As some point there are so many Asian-American doctors that you just think of doctors. That's where we have to get to," Yang said.

"The reason why it's a meaningful issue and continues to be a burden for those of us in these professions is that we are so few," he added.

"If you're the only Asian guy, that guy ends up being 'Asian Guy'. You never have a situation where a white creator is asked to express 'the white experience.' "