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New black cable channel debuts on MLK Day

TV One will air in several metropolitan markets
/ Source: The Associated Press

There may be hundreds of channels on cable television, but Johnathan Rodgers says there’s still something missing for black viewers.

Sure, there are networks for men, women, animal lovers, game show fans and even people nostalgic for old soap operas. But what typical black viewers don’t see, said the president of a new network geared toward blacks, is many people who look like them.

“If you want to see a makeover show where your hair and skin happens to be a different texture or color, what do you watch? If you want to see a horror movie where the first person killed isn’t black, where do you go?” Rodgers asks.

The answer, he hopes, is the upstart TV One network, debuting Martin Luther King Day in several metropolitan markets across the country.

With a mixture of lifestyle shows, documentaries and reruns of old sitcoms and dramas, TV One hopes to woo an audience that Rodgers says is starved for black-oriented programming.

TV One and its corporate backers, Comcast Corp. and urban radio company Radio One, are taking on the dominant and largely unchallenged leader of the urban television market — Viacom’s BET.

TV One claims it targets a different demographic, saying it will go for viewers aged 24 to 54 who might not be interested in the hip-hop and other youth-oriented programming on BET.

However, industry analysts say the two will likely compete for viewers and advertising money, although they note that on cable systems with so many different choices, there is probably enough room for both.

“There should be more than two cable channels that aggressively target African-Americans in a universe of more 200 channels,” said Jason Helfstein, a media analyst with CIBC World Markets Corp.

Rodgers, a former Discovery Communications executive, said Comcast and Radio One created TV One because of a dearth of program for the largely untapped black adult audience, which he calls “underserved.”

Market appears readyMarket research seems to confirm that — Nielsen ratings from 2000 show blacks watched much more television by household and demographic group than the general population. But only one network — BET — actively seeks to solely tap the estimated $631 billion in buying power that blacks flexed in 2002.

A new network will likely be attractive to people frustrated with the current shortage of black programming on cable, according to Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News, a Chicago-based black media trade publication.

“Anything that comes on TV One we already know is targeted to me as an African-American viewer,” Smikle said. “If I have to sit through Discovery Channel to wait for something that is specific interest to me as an African-American, I could be waiting a while.”

The product of a deal forged last year between Comcast and Radio One, TV One launches with a commitment from both companies and other investors for $130 million over the next four years. It will air Monday and be available to 2.2 million cable subscribers in markets such as Washington-Baltimore, Detroit and Atlanta.

For the first few months, much of TV One’s programming will be a mix of new shows combined with retreads such as sitcoms “227” and “Good Times,” as well as the short-lived CBS drama “City of Angels.” A six-hour miniseries on King will also air Monday to mark the civil rights leader’s birthday.

The network plans to add original programming in the coming months, such as a showdown between gospel choirs for a cash prize, a dating show hosted by radio personality Russ Parr and a series hosted by diva Patti Labelle during which she will dish out decorating advice, sing and do just about everything with a camera in tow. There are no plans for a news show.

TV One has an edge on most cable startups that have to cajole cable carriers to include them in service packages. With Comcast as part owner, the network has been able to get a spot on the analog tier of service in many markets. That means viewers who already get expanded basic cable packages won’t have to pay extra for TV One.

Radio One, which will own a 40 percent stake in the new venture, will also plug the network on the 66 radio stations it owns in 22 urban markets. Rodgers said Tom Joyner will promote the show on his syndicated morning radio show and host a special during TV One’s first day of programming.

BET challengeOver the next few months, the network will also debut in Philadelphia, Oakland, Calif., and Chicago on Comcast systems. But the channel has not cracked some large urban markets, such as New York and Los Angeles. A week before its launch, it still hadn’t signed deals with cable carriers other than Comcast.

“In the long run, that is not enough if they are going to try to build a national network,” said David Bank, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets who covers the broadcasting industry. “They are going to need carriage on every multiple service operator (cable provider).”

Then there is the BET challenge. Rodgers is adamant that TV One is meant for a different audience, the type of viewer more interested in a documentary on slavery reparations than the latest rap video.

“I do not regard BET, MTV, ESPN or any network that goes after a different demographic as a competitor,” he said.

BET sees things differently. The network, which reaches 74 million households, revamped its programming last year to add gospel shows and a nightly newscast. It also has separate networks for jazz, hip-hop and gospel music.

BET vice president Michael Lewellen says it is the top-watched cable network among 18- to 49-year-old black prime-time viewers. The perception it is just for the younger set is false, he said.

“In certain parts of the day you will find our programming skewed toward a younger audience, but in prime time and late night our audience demographic is considerably older,” he said. “We wish them (TV One) well in an already crowded cable landscape.”

While TV One has a lot in its favor, the network will still have to fight to establish itself in that crowded landscape of channels, Bank said. Being one of only two black choices isn’t going to keep viewers watching if the programming doesn’t draw them in.

“They are still going to have to compete with 500 other channels on the air. A person could be any ethnicity and they are still going to watch the NFL on another station,” he said. “Are they going to have enough programming to attract not only the BET viewer but also the general market viewer?”