Online soap opera cleans up with stimulus broadband cash

Nearly $1M in federal funds for ‘Diary of a Single Mom’

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You may not have seen the show “Diary of a Single Mom” co-starring Billy Dee Williams, but your tax dollars helped pay for it.

Through the federal economic stimulus program, a company owned by actor-director Robert Townsend was paid more than $230,000 to produce and direct the Web-based show, records show. Other production costs on the show paid to different vendors total more than $700,000.

The money came through an award by the Department of Commerce to One Economy Corp. for more than $28 million last year to help boost broadband Internet service in underserved areas across the country.

One Economy is using more than $1.5 million of that money to create programming such as “Diary of a Single Mom,” which the group says will help provide an incentive for people to connect to the Internet.

But taxpayer watchdogs say the government doesn’t belong in show business.

“The point of broadband was to create access and create the infrastructure for communities that do not have access,” said Ryan Alexander, president of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Creating content wouldn’t be what people in Congress thought of when voting on this.”

Even if the show is well-liked and delivers a good message, she said, the question is whether it could have happened without stimulus money. “Certainly, Robert Townsend is successful,” Ms. Alexander said. “Not that successful people shouldn’t be working; they should be. But they have access to capital.”

Phone calls to the agent for Mr. Townsend’s company, Townsend Entertainment Corp., which is based in Beverly Hills, Calif., were not returned this week. According to the federal grant reports, his company was paid for his services as producer and director.

In August 2009, about eight months before the One Economy grant was awarded, Mr. Townsend wrote about both the broadband program and his work producing the show.

“The Obama administration believes in the Internet’s power to restore the economy,” he wrote. “In fact, more than $7 billion of stimulus funds [have] been allocated to help bring broadband to low-income and ‘underserved’ populations. But the truth of the matter is, without relevant, engaging content, Internet access won’t deliver to its full potential.”

Mr. Townsend went on to say that the need for relevant online content became apparent when he teamed up with One Economy. Together, he wrote, they were producing a series called “Diary of a Single Mom.”

150,000 new subscribers

The president of One Economy, David Saunier, said Thursday that the group spends most of the money from the $28.5 million grant on wiring people to the Internet and on educating them on broadband access. In grant documents, One Economy says overall the money will help train 235,000 people and result in 150,000 new subscribers in unserved and underserved communities.

Mr. Saunier said a portion of the grant, which he estimated at between $1.5 million and $2 million, helps produce the sort of programming not available in mainstream media. He said a Pew Research Center study showed that many people who don’t use the Internet also don’t find online content relevant to their lives.

“It’s about maximizing the incentives to go online,” he said.

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