A New African-American Cable Channel to be Launched
July 14, 2003
By Al Swanson, United Press International
CHICAGO -- When former Discovery Networks President Johnathan Rodgers wanted to pitch his ideas for a new African-American cable channel targeting adults he chose a friendly audience.
"The cable industry assumed that BET (Black Entertainment Television) was all we needed," Rodgers told a Newsmaker Luncheon of the National Association of Minority Media Executives. "I ask general market and white people to imagine if your lives, your dreams, your aspirations, your history, your culture was only displayed on MTV. And all the 120 other channels were our channels.
"Then they get it."
Rodgers said he and others were frustrated by television's offerings to black America. "By the fact that we had no place that we could call home, no destination for us. We hope to do programming that is respectful of the audience."
BET founder Robert Johnson sold the world's largest black-controlled media entity to Viacom in May 2001. Johnson bought the expansion Charlotte Bobcats in the National Basketball Association and was considering launching a regional sports network to televise the games.
BET Holdings -- which has gospel, hip-hop and jazz channels that reach more than 70 million households -- has been accused of de-emphasizing public affairs and news in favor of rap music videos aimed at kids, teens and young adults.
Rodgers says TV One or a channel like it should have been around 20 years ago. BET once was considered a family-oriented channel.
"We will not be BET. There's room for both of us. We're not trying to take BET's audience. We're not trying to take BET's people," Rodgers said. "There is not a battle between the two of us."
"We will not do any regularly scheduled news programming. We will not have any sports. But we will have an active public affairs department -- but mostly it is entertainment. We will also do news documentaries, but we will do sitcoms, we'll do drama, we'll do informational programming, we'll do lifestyle programming, movies. ... If you watch cable, we will be for African-American adults what Lifetime is for women."
Lifetime, a joint venture of the Hearst Corp. and the Walt Disney Company, is the No. 1-rated cable television network in primetime. It operates the Lifetime Movie Network, Lifetime Real Women, which airs true-life stories for and about women, and a Web site.
Rodgers knows television, having spent 20 years in a variety of executive positions at CBS and seven years overseeing the 14 Discovery Network channels, including the Discovery Channel, TLC (The Learning Channel), Animal Planet, Travel Channel, Discovery Health Channel, Discovery en Espanol, Discovery Kids, Discovery Science, Discovery Home & Leisure, Discovery Civilization and Discovery Wings.
The new black cable channel will aim at the 25- to 54-year-old demographic. There's a huge divide between young adults and people over 34 who knew Martin Luther King Jr. as a real person, not just as a historical figure.
Rodgers said adults are really waiting for a serious African-American channel "because they're the ones (who) for 50 years have sort of been abused by television from the days of 'Beulah,' and 'Amos 'n' Andy' on through where there really wasn't anything we could call ourselves."
In the 1950s situation comedy "Beulah," actress Louise Beavers played a kind-hearted black maid in a white family. She had been a real-life maid.
The role previously had been played by Ethel Waters and Hattie McDaniel, who won an Academy Award as Scarlett O'Hara's maid in the 1939 film classic "Gone With the Wind." "Amos 'n' Andy" featured the misadventures of a Harlem taxi driver, Amos, his gullible friend, Andy, and the conniving Kingfish. The NAACP forced the show off the air because of its stereotypical characters at a time when few blacks appeared on television.
"Any time there was something that we could call ours -- at least our perception is that the networks screwed it up," said Rodgers. "They moved the schedule around, they didn't promote it and it failed. It didn't fail because we wouldn't watch it but failed because the networks abused it."
TV One hopes to begin operations by January 2004 in markets where African-Americans are more than 10 percent of the population.
"We had to promise all the cable and satellite operators that we would do only one show in which the essence was music videos," said Rodgers. TV One will have its headquarters in Washington where it will have access to a coterie of movers and shakers, including the new generation of emerging black politicians.
Actor-producer Tim Reid, who played the super-cool radio disc jockey Venus Flytrap on "WKRP in Cincinnati," is an equity partner. Reid earned critical acclaim with the innovative comic-drama "Frank's Place," playing an African-American college professor who inherits Chez Louisiane, a neighborhood New Orleans restaurant, from his estranged father. During its 1987-88 run on CBS, the half-hour show, which had no laugh track, was hailed as a breakthrough in portraying the diversity of the African-American experience on commercial television.
Reid will produce movies for TV One, a series in association with American Legacy magazine, and a show about athletes and entertainers who no longer are in the limelight.
There are 38 million African-Americans in the United States and Rodgers said the 25-54 demographic spends about $4 billion annually on cable fees. The projected 41 million Hispanics in the country two major Spanish-language networks, Univision and NBC-owned Telemundo, from which to choose. CNN en Espanol, Discovery en Espanol, Fox Sports, HBO Latino, MTV, VH UNO, Video Rola, Puma TV, SUR and Colorado-based Cana'es N also have Spanish-language programming.
"Our sweet spot is a 38-year-old African-American woman," Rodgers said. "There may be one or two male nights, and Sundays will be family oriented. Our entire essence is African-American."
Twenty-five percent of BET's audience is non-African-American and with backing from cable giant Comcast and Radio One, Rodgers wants to attract 20 percent crossover viewers by offering urban as well as African-American programming.
While news programming is too expensive for the start-up, fledging TV One could partner with the black-owned MBC Network, an Atlanta-based cable outlet launched by attorney Willie E. Gary.
Major Broadcast Company does news, family programming and major black college sports. There also are The Word Network, which airs religious and gospel music programming, and UBC (the Urban Broadcasting Company), a New York-based channel appealing to multicultural audiences.
That Rodgers would outline his business strategy at NAMME is not surprising. The 400-member group is the best minority journalism organization, although most people have never heard of it.
Top, mid-level and new managers and executives working in print, broadcast and online media belong to the 14-year-old association, which sponsors conferences featuring industry leaders, management development seminars, networking and continuing education through the McCormick Tribune Fellowship Initiative.
"Where do people of color get professional development in media?" asked incoming NAMME President Vaughn P. Benjamin, vice president of the Media Credit Association, the trade association for credit managers of magazine publishers.
"You've got to start your own is what you do. And then the vision was for it to be multimedia and multi-ethnic. This is a big tent and more often than not our interests are similar," said Benjamin, also vice president of workforce diversity for the Magazine Publishers of America.
Panels at the two-day conference included an update on the implications of the Federal Communication Commission's deregulation ruling on media cross-ownership, the Latino market, best practices for building an audience, the Jayson Blair-New York Times scandal and "The Executive Toolkit: Competencies for Success," essential tools minorities need to advance in media.
"I would say the value NAMME provides for its members is really quality workshop seminars, presentations on relevant and current topics. For example, the panel you just heard was talking about convergence. That's a key issue right now. It's relevant to most of our organizations and you've got some of the leaders of the industry speaking about it through our group," said Jose A. Berrios, vice president of human resources and diversity at Gannett.
"Rarely do you get that kind of exposure to those thought leaders and also the business leaders to hear what they have to say about topics that are relating to us (minorities)."
As America's population ages and the country grows more racially and ethnically diverse, minorities will be more important to media companies trying to the serve enormously fragmented audiences and the minority viewers' influence will increase exponentially.
African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians with growing input in executive suites will have as much or more impact on society and mass culture as superstar athletes, actors and entertainers.
America is changing.
By mid-century, the percentage of non-Hispanic whites in the United States is projected to decrease from the current 72 percent to 52.8 percent, while the African-American population will grow from 13 percent to 15.4 percent, Asian and Pacific Islanders expand from 3.4 percent to 8.7 percent and Hispanics more than double from 11.4 percent to 24.5 percent. The U.S. Census Bureau recently determined that Hispanics were now the largest minority group in the United States.
Hispanic population growth accounted for half of total U.S. population growth between 2000 and 2002, according to Geoscape Intelligence System, a multicultural marketing firm.
Nearly 67 percent of U.S. Hispanics are of Mexican origin and 14.3 percent are Puerto Ricans granted U.S. citizenship by the Jones Act of 1917. Millions more Mexicans in the "immigration age" cohort of 21 to 39 are expected to move north in search of jobs.
They read newspapers and magazines, listen to the radio and watch television.
Hispanic households are closing the income gap faster than blacks with median Hispanic household income around $38,000 compared to $45,600 for non-Hispanic whites.
While people are spending more time in front of screens, the audience watching broadcast network and over-the-air broadcast programming fell 29 percent from 1997 to 2003 -- from an average 923 hours a year per viewer five years ago to 847 hours in 2003.
The winners are cable, satellite and the Internet. Hourly Internet usage soared 586 percent since 1997, according to Wired magazine.
A survey by Content Intelligence found 34 percent of people said they would turn to the Internet to find out what's going on a busy news day, compared to 33 percent who said television, 14 percent newspapers and 12 percent radio.
Technology is creating a new digital world with cable systems capable of handling 250 channels, broadcast satellite 300 channels and the Internet an unlimited number of sites.
It will cost each of the nation's 4,700 broadcast stations between $8 million and $15 million to convert to digital, but each station will then be able to multiplex five channels at 19.38 million bits per second.
Screens will get wider and narrower with super clear HDTV, high-definition television.
Audiences will get narrower as the bandwidth expands and broadcasters are able to transmit both data and interactive information.
The nagging question remains: Who will control most of those channels?
"To be honest with you, I'm more disturbed by the lack of minority interests in media," said AOL Time Warner executive Steve Parmon. "You look at what HBO's been able to put together. Why are they the only network with a thing like 'Tuskegee Airmen'? Why are they the only one talking about slave narratives when that network has absolutely nothing to do with the African-American experience?"
Five companies currently control about 25 percent of the national media and 75 percent of programming. The FCC's June 2 ruling on deregulation would allow newspapers to own two television stations in 170 markets and allow one company to reach 45 percent of the national market, up from 35 percent. The big networks, NBC, CBS and ABC, would not be allowed to buy each other.
"We're for democracy and journalism," said Dennis Swanson, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Viacom's 39-station television group. "If we can increase ourselves intelligently we are going to do that."
With greater consolidation what happens to diversity in programming and employment?
Dissenters in the commission's 3-2 decision said increased cross-ownership was likely to damage media for years to come by eliminating opportunities for new or different voices to be heard on the airwaves.
Seattle Times Chairman Frank Blethen said disinvestment in newsrooms over the last decade had resulted in fewer reporters and not enough minorities, but he acknowledged the Tribune Co. had done a nice job running its two Seattle stations, KCPQ-TV and KTWB-TV.
"The issue is what we don't cover," said Blethen. "Do we have the opportunity for our media to be independent and do we have the resources?"
David Honig, executive director of Minority Media & Telecom Council, said there was no conspiracy to silence minorities, who own 1.3 percent of media industry assets, a figure unreflective of the population and the various groups' influence.
"There were no deals," he said. They (FCC commissioners) voted according to their beliefs. They just got it wrong."
MMTC is sponsoring a conference on "Building and Financing Minority Broadcast Companies," in Washington July 21-22 to help minority broadcasters survive the new FCC regulations. The rules may be challenged in Congress or the courts.
John F. Strum, president and chief executive officer of the Newspaper Association of America, predicted fewer than 150 stations would be gobbled up and the public would be better served by new owners with greater financial resources.
Between 80 percent and 85 percent of households have cable or satellite access, but there are fears about the "digital divide" widening for the estimated 15 percent the populations -- mainly poor people and underserved rural residents -- bypassed by the telecommunications revolution.
For them it's still 1975, when there were three nationwide networks, no cable, no Internet, and the public was dependent on over-the-air stations for local news.