A new rival for bet? Radio One, Comcast to launch black-oriented cable channel
K. Terrell Reed
Broadcast company Radio One Inc. and cable giant Comcast Corp. are joining forces to create what some insiders believe eventually become a legitimate contender to Black Entertainment Television’s dominance of the African American TV market.
Radio One will invest $70 million into the joint venture with Comcast contributing $60 million. Each company will hold slightly less than 40% of the network, while other unnamed investors will control the balance. The new network is slated to launch this summer.
But despite industry insiders’ opinions, Radio One CEO Alfred C. Liggins III is saying his newest creation is radically different from BET rather than its competitive nemesis. “We’re going to be more adult-focused. We won’t be heavily focused on music videos,” he says. “We’re not going after their audience. We’ll be heavily targeting 25 to 54-year-olds, with very little, if any, 12 to 24-year-old content.”
Still, there is little chance timing could be better for a second major cable network to challenge BET. BET, founded in 1980 by entrepreneur Robert L. Johnson, has almost always faced criticism about its heavy slant toward music videos and away from news programming. That criticism picked up steam in 2000 when BET was sold to media giant Viacom for $3 billion. Critics feared that, with BET no longer under African American control, its new owners would feel no responsibility to broadcast news and public affairs programming geared toward our community. “A lot of people were not satisfied with what BET was offering, but they were the only game in town,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications in upstate New York. “So you had to deal with it.” Then BET officials announced last December that they were eliminating BET Tonight With Ed Gordon, Lead Story, and teen-issue program Teen Summit, leaving the network with only one Sunday morning news program.
BET Chief Operating Officer Debra Lee could not be reached for comment. But in separate statements, Lee has said that the programming changes at BET would benefit the network and that the new Radio One channel would not hurt its status. “Our new focus will strike a better balance between original programming and an increase in acquired shows,” Lee said in a statement. “The idea of launching another cable channel targeting African Americans, or somehow competing with BET for that matter, is not new. One such venture recently shut down its operation, while another is still trying to survive.”
The venture that “recently shut down” was–not coincidentally–New Urban Entertainment TV (see Newspoints, Feb. 2003), a Maryland-based network that Liggins had made a small investment in only a year prior. The network launched in 1999 but struggled to find funding and space on the cable systems it needed to reach viewers and stay afloat. Not only upstart, black-owned cable networks but broadcast networks like UPN have taken aim at BET’s audience in the past by scheduling entire lineups of black-targeted sitcoms.
Michael Lewellen, BET vice president of corporate communications, plays down any notion of competition. “There is not a war of any sort between BET and the people at Comcast and Radio One, although a lot of people in the media have tried to create one. The notion of competing for African American viewers is one that we’ve had to deal with for a long time” Lewellen also called reports that BET had killed all of its news programming “utter misinformation,” noting that the networks flagship news program, BET Nightly News, was still in production. Though the other news and public affairs programming was axed, Lewellen said that was part of a new strategy that shifts the emphasis to news analysis fare in favor of more analytical news specials like the exclusive Trent Lott interview conducted by Ed Gordon last December. Such news specials, will become a regular part of BET’S programming and will be dictated by news events.
Radio One and Comcast announced their deal in early January after Liggins spent four years seeking a deal that would allow Radio One to jump into the cable television business. “The entire process was long and frustrating,” Liggins says.
At the same time, Comcast is also in talks with hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons about launching a hip-hop cable network another venture that would give the cable system owner deeper penetration into African American households.
Greg Coules, a media equities analyst formerly with Morgan Stanley in New York says the programming gap at BET opens a huge opportunity for the Radio One-Comcast network. “There’s a ton of demand for it,” Coules says. “African Americans are becoming more and more affluent, all of the things that advertisers like to see, and there’s a huge demand for African American-based fare from non-African Americans. It’s a huge opportunity, one that Radio One would understand.”
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