When Allen Media Group this summer made a $10 billion unsolicited bid to buy Walt Disney’s ABC Network, its affiliates, and cable channels FX and National Geographic, you might have asked: What the heck is Allen Media Group?
It’s not an unreasonable question. While Allen Media Group boasts notable assets like several ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX affiliates, and The Weather Channel, and savvy cord cutters will recognize Local Now, the parent company itself has operated under the radar. It’s the brainchild of Byron Allen, a former standup comedian and talk show host who over the last three decades has recast himself into a savvy media mogul.
His company, originally created to produce a syndicated show featuring Allen interviewing celebrities, has likewise quietly transformed into a small media empire encompassing 12 cable and streaming networks, a studio producing and distributing movies and syndicated shows, and 27 ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX affiliates. It bills itself as the first Black-owned multi-platform media company, with Allen as the sole owner.
It’s why Allen exuded confidence in a CNBC interview that took place shortly after the Disney bid was made.
“We’re the best ones to get the deal done,” he said (see the full interview here), touting his success running his own collection of local broadcast stations. “If Disney is willing to sell it, we just want to make it very clear that we’re willing to buy it.”
Disney, however, was not willing to sell, and rebuffed the offer. But the eagerness to make a deal has been a key trait of Allen, whose journey marks a stunning and unlikely path to success.
Allen Media Group declined to make Allen available for an interview for this story.
Cobbling Together an Empire
Allen, who has talked about his humble beginnings sleeping on couches and floors when he first moved to Los Angeles with his single mother, started doing stand up comedy at 14. He was good enough to write jokes for Jimmie Walker in the same room as then-aspiring comedians Jay Leno and David Letterman (he was paid $25 a joke).
At 18, he performed on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, the youngest comedian to do so. That propelled him into acting roles on television before getting his own syndicated talk show, The Byron Allen Show.
In 1993, Allen parlayed his screen time and connections to form CF Entertainment (later renamed to Entertainment Studios/Allen Media Group), which produced syndicated Entertainers with Byron Allen, a low-cost show you might have stumbled upon randomly late at night.
The company quickly expanded its slate of content. When Verizon was looking for high-definition content for its big FiOS HD push, he created a collection of cable channels, including Cars.TV, Comedy.TV, and Justice Central, from scratch.
“I’m not a litigious person. If I’m filing a lawsuit, it’s because I know we’re right.”Byron Allen
After hitting roadblocks getting the channels picked up elsewhere, in 2015 he sued AT&T, Comcast, and Charter Communications, claiming racial discrimination. AT&T settled in months, bringing the company’s channels to DIRECTV. The $20 billion lawsuit with Comcast went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before the two sides settled in 2020, with the cable giant agreeing to carry three of its channels. Charter was the last to settle, coming to an agreement in 2021 and ending a suit in which Allen sought $10 billion.
“I’m not a litigious person,” he told Los Angeles Magazine in a profile last year. “If I’m filing a lawsuit, it’s because I know we’re right.”
In the meantime, Allen Media Group went on a buying spree. It bought Freestyle Releasing in 2015 to help it distribute movies. A year later, it acquired Black news and culture site The Grio. One of its most high-profile deals came in 2018, when it spent $300 million on The Weather Channel, which brought along a then-burgeoning Local Now service.
Not all of its bets paid off – Allen Media Group was an investor in regional sports network Bally Sports, which is in the middle of bankruptcy court proceedings and may shut down some time next year.
Arguably its biggest shift came in 2019, when it began acquiring local broadcast stations. It purchased one here and 11 there, steadily building its collection of network affiliates that now totals 27 stations serving 21 markets. The stations cover smaller markets, with its largest ranked 65th in the nation.
Throughout the years, he didn’t build his company out of big, flashy acquisitions, but rather cobbled it together one small purchase at a time.
Straddling Two Worlds
It’s the unique mix of businesses that gives Allen – and Allen Media Group – a way to take advantage of the shift in how people are watching television, with cord cutting upending the cable TV business and streaming changing the game for everyone.
Free, ad-supported streaming services, or so-called FAST channels, are having a moment, which plays nicely into Local Now, originally the streaming spin-off of The Weather Channel created in 2016. The side project is coming to its own, regularly adding channels and providing a source of local news and weather to audiences who are rapidly axing their traditional cable subscriptions.
Local Now offers more than 450 free live streaming channels and 18,000 movies, TV shows, and documentaries. It’s increasingly building channels for key partners, like last month’s debut of the TIME channel, and continues to add more channels all the time.
For cord cutters – especially ones who don’t have an antenna – Local Now also provides an invaluable source of local news.
In addition, the company last year launched a free video streaming service called Sports.TV, which offers sports-related news, movies, documentaries, and games from local broadcasting stations. That’s in addition to HBCU Go, a streaming service that airs games played by historically Black colleges and universities.
Allen Media Group’s ownership of local broadcast stations means the company has one foot in each world. Eric Sorensen, director of the streaming video tracker for Parks Associates, said even with streaming’s growth, it’s smart to maintain that broadcast presence since cable TV viewers still primarily look to local stations for news, weather, and sports.
“It is clear the organization is building hybrid models across traditional TV and streaming through content development and acquisitions to protect its existing investments, such as the Weather Channel and Local Now,” Sorensen said.
As for Allen, he doesn’t appear to be stopping. Prior to the Disney bid, he was among the suitors to buy BET from Paramount, which the company later took off the market. His attempt to become the first Black owner of an NFL team fell short last year when he was outbid for the Denver Broncos, but he’s already vowed to continue pursuing that goal. He teased even loftier ambitions for his media company.
“This is a fraction of what we’re going to do,” he said in an interview with PBS a year ago. “We haven’t even begun.”
Image credit: CBS