You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Bob Johnson Sees YouTube Pay Channel ‘Liberating’ Urban Programming

RLJ Entertainment’s OnCue and Acorn TV among first subscription services on Google video site

There aren’t really any big stars in YouTube’s initial wave of subscription channels, except for maybe Big Bird and Elmo.

But Bob Johnson, who created BET in 1980, is banking on YouTube’s pay-channel platform as a way to produce a host of new programming aimed at African-American audiences — movies and shows he says would never be greenlit otherwise.

“We think there’s an exact opportunity to do in the Internet space what I did 30 years ago in cable,” Johnson said. “Getting talent and raising capital is going to be a heck of a lot easier with YouTube.”

Johnson’s RLJ Entertainment has two ad-free pay channels on YouTube: OnCue, billed as providing urban-themed programming, for $1.99 per month; and Acorn TV, which provides a selection of British mysteries and other skeins for $4.99 per month.

Right now, OnCue features films and series spanning multiple genres, including action, drama, romantic comedies, standup comedy, documentaries, music and stage plays. Among current selections: “35 & Ticking,” starring Kevin Hart and Meagan Good, “All Things Fall Apart,” starring 50 Cent and Lynn Whitfield, and the “I Ain’t Scared of You” special featuring the late comedian Bernie Mac.

In 2014, RLJ intends to launch first-run programming produced for OnCue, targeting up to two original movies or series per month.

Why YouTube? Johnson said it was a no-brainer: “YouTube has over 1 billion users. Our customers will find us in the Internet sphere, not only nationally but internationally.”

Another attractive feature is that “there are no real gatekeepers” with YouTube’s model, he said. “This is the first time there’s ever been a minority-owned channel that doesn’t have to please cable operators, cable networks, movie studios or advertisers,” Johnson said. “This will be liberating.”

In addition, there’s no exclusive arrangement in the agreement with YouTube, which means RLJ could take it to other distribution outlets if it chooses to.

With OnCue, Johnson wants to gain a first-mover position with a digital network aimed at African-American auds featuring content that he claims wouldn’t find its way onto cable or into movie theaters because it would be deemed “unmarketable.”

“We’re not talking about heightened violence or heightened sexuality — we’re talking about stories that have never been told,” he said.

OnCue’s programming could encompass reality series, or movies about “black heroes” who have never been portrayed on TV or in the movies, according to Johnson, mentioning the “great Carthaginian general Hannibal who sacked Rome. He was black.” (According to historians, while Hannibal was from northern Africa, he would not have been described by Romans as “black.”)

About 2 million African-American households subscribe to HBO or Showtime, Johnson said, citing Nielsen figures. “Our content may not have big budgets like on HBO or Showtime, but it will be stuff you haven’t see in African-American programming,” he said.

Meanwhile, to make the economics of Internet video work, RLJ plans to distribute the original content through other channels in subsequent windows, either on DVD through Walmart or Redbox; other streaming services like Netflix or Hulu; or even cablers like BET and TV One.

“One of the biggest impediments to African-American and urban titles is the studios don’t believe there’s a backend to these shows,” Johnson said.

RLJ’s other YouTube pay channel, Acorn TV, is aimed at anglophiles. It launched last year on Roku set-tops and Barnes & Noble’s Nook tablets and has about 25,000 subscribers through those platforms. Right now, the version on YouTube offers 150 hours of content, and the company plans to expand that in July to about 800 hours. Then, in the fall, Acorn TV will begin premiering new releases on a monthly basis, said RLJ Entertainment topper Miguel Penella.

Johnson formed RLJ Entertainment in October 2012 through merger of RLJ Acquisition, Image Entertainment and Acorn Media Group. The Bethesda, Md.-based company licenses and distributes about 5,300 titles in North America, the U.K. and Australia.

For the full-year 2012, the publicly held company reported $181 million in revenue and a net loss of $20.7 million on a pro-forma basis (incorporating the results from predecessor companies prior to the merger).

SEE ALSO: YouTube’s 30 Pay-Channel Partners Run from Kid Fare to Cage Matches

Popular on Variety

More Digital

  • John Carmack John Carmack, Chief Technical

    Oculus CTO John Carmack to Step Down

    One of the driving forces behind Facebook’s virtual reality efforts is leaving his post: Oculus CTO John Carmack announced Wednesday afternoon that he was transitioning to a “consulting CTO” role this week, and devote most of his time to new challenges outside of the company. “I will still have a voice in the development work, [...]

  • Rachel Brill - BR Studio -

    Bleacher Report Taps Epix's Rachel Brill to Head B/R Studio

    Rachel Brill is departing Epix to join WarnerMedia’s Bleacher Report as senior VP and general manager of B/R Studio, the digital sports division’s recently formed original programming arm. As head of B/R Studio, Brill is tasked with building a slate of mid- and long-form content aimed at Bleacher Report’s millennial and Gen Z-skewing audience. She [...]

  • Variety Tastemaker honoree Ayesha Curry

    Ayesha Curry's Impact Ranges From Family to Food to Philanthropy

    Ayesha Curry — wife, mother, restaurateur, author, executive producer and CoverGirl — literally does it all. Receiving Variety’s Inaugural Tastemaker award at the 2019 Napa Valley Film Festival, the entrepreneur is being recognized for her social impact in combining entertainment, philanthropy and her culinary lifestyle. Curry holds her cookbook — her first step toward a [...]

  • Joe Anthony Russo

    Russo Brothers Creating Marvel vs. DC Docu-Series for Quibi

    Anthony and Joseph Russo, who have been key creative members of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, are now bringing a new show to Quibi documenting the decades-long rivalry between Marvel and DC. Quibi, the mobile TV subscription startup founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg, greenlit “Slugfest,” a documentary series executive produced by the Russo Brothers, whose directing credits [...]

  • Nobu Hotel Palo Alto

    High-Tech Flourishes Help Hotels Thrive in Silicon Valley

    To thrive in Silicon Valley, hotels must be up to par, technology-wise. “The Nobu brand marries the east and west to create something entirely new — it’s approachable luxury,” says Andrew Tilley, VP of hotel openings. Nobu Hotel Palo Alto (180 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto, 650-666-3311, nobuhotels.com) is the latest retreat from chef Nobu Matsuhisa, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content