Three African-American-focused nets bow, with more on horizon

A convergence of timing and opportunity are about to bring BET and TV One plenty of company in the black TV universe.

Four new African-American-focused networks are in the process of launching, with Bounce TV already online and Magic Johnson’s Aspire planning to premiere this summer. Soul of the South, a regional network, is busy clearing affiliates. Sean Comb’s Revolt, with a focus on music and pop culture, plans to be on the air in 2013.

One of the reasons for the influx is due to the terms of Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal in January 2011. To complete the transaction, Comcast made a deal with the FCC and the Dept. of Justice to launch 10 minority-owned channels over the following eight years. The first four include Aspire and Revolt, as well as two networks targeted at Latinos.

Last September, a coalition led by Martin Luther King III launched Bounce TV. That network is carried on digital tiers by Fox affiliates and other TV stations covering 60% of the country and 75% of African-American households. Soul of the South, also is seeking clearances on digital tiers, focusing its distribution in the Southeast and Northern cities that have large black populations, with a goal to bow on at least 50 stations in a two-wave platform.

“We plan to launch in two phases of 25 stations each, and it could be a bit more than that,” says Edwin Avent, Soul of the South’s CEO. The first phase will launch this spring, and the second will be in late summer or early fall, Avent says.

Aspire, which Comcast announced late last year, is slated to launch on its cable systems this summer, and will partner with GMC (formerly the Gospel Music Channel, and a minority partner in the venture) on back-office operations, such as marketing and sales. Aspire will be based in Atlanta next to GMC so the two can share services, but Aspire is owned and operated, and is the vision of Magic Johnson Enterprises, says Brad Siegel, vice chairman of GMC.

Revolt execs declined to be interviewed, maintaining they are yet too early in the process of building the net.

Since local stations have digital spectrum to fill, now seems like the right time to launch new channels. The four networks will join the two major players in black TV: BET and TV One, and those networks’ digital siblings, Centric (a mix of interview- and music-driven shows, movies and library titles like “The Cosby Show”) and TV One High Def.

Siegel says the black audience is particularly underserved, given its viewing habits.

“African Americans spend more time watching television than any other group,” he says.. “I think that part of (the reason these audiences were underserved) is that networks and producers felt that African-Americans were happy or satisfied with general-market television and didn’t feel that their interests and tastes included any special needs, which I think to a large degree was not correct.”

Moreover, the black marketplace is large, with money to spend. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, African Americans compose 13.6% (or 42 million people) of the U.S. population. It’s a group that has $836 billion in buying power, reports Target Market News, a publication that covers the black media marketplace. The black population in the U.S. is growing, but slowly: It’s expected to increase to 15% of the population by 2050.

In recent years, media companies have focused more on Latinos who, at 50.5 million people, make up 16.3% of the U.S. population, a number that is expected to grow to 30% by 2050, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Still, with nearly $1 trillion of spending power behind them, African Americans also have caught media companies’ notice.

“There are four cable networks serving 42 million African Americans, but there are 75 cable networks targeted at serving 50 million Hispanics,” says Eric Holoman, president of Magic Johnson Enterprises and chief operating officer of Aspire. “People fold African Americans into the general-market audience.” While Hispanic networks are naturally more prevalent due to language considerations, black networks aim to bridge a cultural gap.

“Since last September, we’ve done several focus groups, and what people told us they thought was missing in the marketplace was positive family entertainment for African Americans, content that both children and parents can watch together,” Holoman says.

That’s also been the finding of the established black networks, BET and TV One. Both networks have made moves in that direction, although each is going about it a little differently.

BET — the veteran by a longshot, with 32 years under its belt, and the top cabler among 18-to-49-year-old African-Americans for the past 12 years — has had breakthrough success over the past two seasons with its acquisition of “The Game,” a black sitcom that the CW dropped in May 2009.

While the show, a spinoff of UPN’s “Girlfriends” featuring a group of women who date professional football players, may not exactly be family fare, it set basic cable records with a debut audience of nearly 8 million viewers when it premiered new episodes on BET in January 2011, after having aired on the network in syndication since February 2009.

“This was a true case of audience demand,” says Matthew Barnhill, BET’s executive vice president of corporate research. “Our audience literally demanded we pick up ‘The Game’ after the CW dropped it.”

That move has given BET the incentive to add more original laffers.”Let’s Stay Together,” a romantic comedy about the relationships of five young African Americans, premiered with “The Game” in January 2011 to 4.4 million viewers, and is back for a second season. In October, BET launched “Reed Between the Lines,” starring Malcolm Jamal-Warner and Tracee Ellis-Ross, and renewed it for a second season in April. At this year’s upfronts, BET will be announcing more moves into original scripted dramas and movies, Barnhill says.

TV One, which has been in business for eight years, also is adding originals, but it’s focusing on crime and justice as well as sitcoms, says Wonya Lucas, TV One’s president, who joined the network eight months ago from Investigation Discovery.

“We are going into categories that typically attract African Americans on other networks,” Lucas says. “African Americans are very interested in the Trayvon Martin case right now, and they watch a lot of ‘CSI’ and ‘Law & Order.'”

To that end, TV One will launch “Unresolved: Celebrity Cases” in the fourth quarter of this year, and it’s returning series “Find Our Missing,” hosted by “Law & Order’s” S. Epatha Merkerson.

TV One also is dipping its toe into original sitcoms. Three are in development for next year: “The Rickey Smiley Show,” starring the radio personality playing a character that’s a lot like him; “Belles,” set in an upscale soul food restaurant; and “Church Folk,” about a family forced to leave their mega-church in Los Angeles and return to the South.

Of the new networks, Bounce is the most established, and has launched with a mix of acquired series, such as “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” “Soul Train” and “Judge Hatchett”; classic movies, such as “Glory,” “The Wiz,” “Mahogany” and “Do the Right Thing”; and sports — specifically football and basketball — from historically black colleges and universities. Bounce also would like to get into the boxing business, says Ryan Glover, the network’s president.

Bounce expects to head into original programming this year, with efficiently produced series such as videoclip shows, standup comedy, sketch shows and musicvideo programs.

“Our plan is to stick with the formats that we know, attach great talent to those ideas and produce them in a smart and compelling way that we know will work for our audience,” Glover says. “We aren’t going out and creating scripted dramas or scripted sitcoms at the moment. Those are costly and difficult to produce.”

Bounce has started the process of being Nielsen-rated nationally, but numbers are not yet available.

Aspire has a gameplan that aims to feature economically produced originals, with nights dedicated to
different genres: independent and short films and documentaries; major Hollywood features; musicvideos, performances and documentaries; sitcoms; and the arts, such as theater and dance, Siegel says. Each night will be hosted by a celebrity. Many of the network’s programming announcements will come in the next few weeks, Holoman says.

Finally, Soul of the South plans to program its network like a local TV station, only aimed at a black audience.

“We think there’s a 25-54 audience seeking programming that speaks to their needs on an everyday basis,” Avent says.

Still, all of these new networks may want to heed the words of Oprah Winfrey, who is finding the launch of another new network — OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network — far more difficult than she expected.

“The idea of creating a network was something that I wanted to do,” Winfrey recently told Gayle King, the new co-host of CBS’ “The Early Show” and Winfrey’s longtime best friend. “Had I known that it was this difficult, I might have done something else.”

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