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A 'CNN' for black viewers

Two independent cable networks, one of them based in Tallahassee, plan to create a 24-hour news network aimed at an untapped audience.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2003


For some of us who have grown tired of the diversity-challenged state of TV news programming, it sounds like a tantalizing dream: a channel where everything from Trent Lott's gaffe to George W. Bush's tax plan and possible war with Iraq might be reported and analyzed from the perspective of black people.

No, not on the 22-year-old Black Entertainment Television cable network; BET dropped most of its news programming last year, not long after scoring its biggest coup in years by pinning back Lott's ears in an incisive prime time interview.

This time, hope comes courtesy of the fledgling Atlanta-based Major Broadcasting Cable Network, which has announced plans to start a 24-hour cable news channel targeted to black viewers in partnership with Florida's News Channel, a statewide news network based in Tallahassee. Under MBCN's vision, news operations would be divided between Atlanta and Tallahassee, with FNC anchor Gordon Graham hosting from Florida on one of FNC's computer-generated "virtual" sets.

Willie E. Gary of Stuart, a lawyer known for big-money victories against companies such as Coca-Cola and Disney, is the company's primary financial backer and CEO. He is aided by a group of officers and investors that includes former New York Yankees star Cecil Fielder, fighter Evander Holyfield and singer Marlon Jackson, brother of Michael.

On April 4, the companies will present an hourlong newscast on MBCN, a family-oriented, black-centered entertainment network that company officials said is available to 24-million households in 48 states (not in the Tampa Bay area or Sarasota but on cable systems in Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Orlando and Miami).

By early 2004, the entities hope to debut the 24-hour channel, clunkily named MBC News: The Urban Voice.

"When the networks did their postmortems on the State of the Union address, I didn't see any black members of Congress or pundits," said Greg Morrison, MBCN news director. "Nobody checks with us on issues like the war with Iraq . . . (asking) 'What impact is that going to have on the black community?' Other than Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice, I challenge you to name any other African-American who has been quoted regularly on any foreign or domestic policy issue."

Initially, Morrison expects to develop stories for MBC News mostly through a network of freelance correspondents scattered across the country and guided by producers in Atlanta.

Connected to Georgia by fiber optic cables and phone lines, FNC will produce the network's stories from Florida, contributing material from its operation and sending the channel's signal to cable systems across the country. (Morrison also hopes to tap student workers from nearby colleges such as Florida A&M; and Florida State.)

"We're targeting an audience nobody is serving," said Bob Brillante, managing partner of FNC, which has become a minority partner in MBCN. "If you use an analogy to what's happening in the Spanish-language community, there you've got four national Spanish-language channels serving that audience. Couple that with the need to create a dialogue between blacks and whites and you'll find the time for MBC News is long overdue."

Morrison said the channel will target black viewers ages 25 to 55 and up, neatly sidestepping BET, which draws much younger eyeballs thanks to a daily programming lineup filled with music videos and standup comedy shows. Citing figures showing that spending on advertising to black consumers has increased by millions while overall ad spending has dwindled, Brillante expects to find lots of enthusiasm among businesses.

It's a promising vision, filled with possibilities. But one question returns time and again: Can they really pull this off?

Another group of hopefuls tried challenging BET three years ago, creating a black-centered network called New Urban Entertainment. With big-name investors such as Quincy Jones and veteran cable TV executive Leo Hindery Jr., NUE was also conceived as a high-quality alternative to BET but disintegrated as the company failed to find cable systems to carry it.

"What it comes down to is it's all about distribution," said Donovan Myrie, former news director for NUE-TV, who now works as an instructor at the University of Tampa. "NUE's philosophy was, 'If we build (a great channel), they will come.' They read the market 100 percent wrong."

At NUE, Myrie struggled to assemble newscasts with a small staff, relying heavily on freelancers who were not always available and sometimes worked for BET.

These days, new networks get space on cable systems through strong corporate alliances with major players. AOL Time Warner saved the women-centered Oxygen network by featuring the service on its cable systems in exchange for advertising money and an investment stake, for instance. But NUE could never pull together such an effective partnership, Myrie said.

"The market is there. . . . African-Americans watch a lot more TV than other groups, and nobody's going after this group effectively," he said. "BET hasn't given black Americans a reason to watch. African-Americans have a lot of money to spend, and nobody's tapping into it."

MBC News faces similar challenges, with its reliance on freelance contributors and a viewership reach far below BET's 72-million households. With its editorial offices in one state and production in another, questions of coordination arise.

Over the past two years, FNC has laid off 26 employees, paring its reporting staff significantly to keep providing news to its statewide network. And family-friendly MBCN, which started as an all-gospel channel, is still heavy with religious programming and sports. It has just one syndicated rerun, the long-gone Fox sitcom Roc, in its programming stable.

So is this a case of two struggling businesses trying to find success by joining with each other?

Brillante said no, pointing out that the alliance developed after officials in both companies realized they were separately trying to develop a national news network for black viewers.

"When we launched FNC, we tried to do it alone. . . . We didn't recognize the value of partnerships," he said, adding that Florida's News Channel has been "cash flow positive" for 14 months. "We realized quickly that by FNC providing the news-gathering infrastructure and MBCN providing the promotion and affiliate cable relationships, we would succeed."

Still, details are sketchy. Because FNC and MBCN are private companies, neither is required to release financial data. Morrison and Brillante wouldn't say how much it might cost to develop the all-news network or even how many reporters they might employ, in part because plans are still evolving.

They're not the only ones to try targeting this market. In January, Radio One and Comcast Corp. announced plans to create a cable TV network targeting black viewers ages 25 to 54, citing figures showing black consumers with $572-billion in buying power and $2.7-billion spent on cable TV.

The unnamed network is planned for a mid-2003 launch, using up to $130-million in funding through a partnership that pairs Comcast's 21.4-million cable subscribers with a black-centered radio network that reaches 12.5-million listeners each week.

In many ways, it's about time.

If MBCN's rosy economic figures are an indication, black viewers watch TV more than any other ethnic group, with 70 percent of households tuned to prime time TV on average (compared with 61 percent of white households). BET, which is adding syndicated reruns of series such as Showtime's Soul Food and UPN's The Parkers and Girlfriends to its lineup late this year and early next, has had this playground to itself for far too long.

"We're trying to empower and educate, (creating) a show where everybody from grandmother to grandkids can watch and nobody turns away embarrassed," MBCN news director Morrison said. "I admit, we'll be clawing and scratching every step of the way. But you don't get a date with Miss America unless you ask."

-- To reach Eric Deggans, call (727) 893-8521, e-mail deggans@sptimes.com or see the St. Petersburg Times Web site at www.sptimes.com.

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