When Robert Townsend maxed out his credit cards in the late 1980s to make the movie Hollywood Shuffle, he satirized the stereotypical gangster and pimp roles offered to African-American actors. Over the last three years, he’s been doing the cable shuffle, as president and CEO of Black Family Channel Productions, working with lean budgets and a vision to create high-profile shows.

"I’m happy with where I’m at," Townsend says. "I just know I want the channel to grow even faster."

He’s not the only one.

BFC is one of six channels targeting African-Americans that have launched in the last 10 years. And as Black History Month begins nearly all of them have yet to crack the 25 million subscriber mark. The exception is TV One, a service born with investments from DirecTV and Comcast Corp.

Indeed, Bob Reid, EVP and general manager of one-year-old The Africa Channel, says that one of his biggest surprises in moving over from a gig heading the Discovery Health Channel was learning how difficult the distribution game has become. Like channels in just about any genre, African-American-targeted channels are learning that all the extra space on digital cable infrastructure is being devoured by local station carriage and high-definition channels. And they’re vying for space by jostling with not only each other, but with some 80 channels catering to Hispanics, and a sprinkling of others serving Asian-Americans.

Granted, African-Americans are considered much more a part of the general population than those with a Latino or Pacific Rim heritage. Only 8% of African-Americans in the U.S. are foreign born, according to the research firm Synovate.

"There is the opinion that African-Americans are mainstream, and they respond to programming that we all share. So therefore, do we really need special channels?" says Howard Horowitz, president of research firm Horowitz Associates. While he believes that expecting cable operators to put newer African-American channels on the lowest analog tiers is a pipe dream, he adds: "[African-Americans] have vertical needs just like the rest of us."

As Horowitz indicates, the No. 1 inhibitor to the growth of African-American networks is the impression that the general market channels meet the needs of many African-Americans. While cable operators are willing to support a few networks, they don’t feel the need to support all of them. In addition, there’s the issue of bandwidth being eaten up by HDTV and local-market stations. The programmers have not organized themselves into a coalition that would grab operators’ attention, and therefore seem to be in a pitched battle against each other.

Meanwhile, executives at BET, TV One, Black Family Channel and The Africa Channel feel that the needs of African-Americans are being ignored by other services. "A lot of the content we’re creating, you can’t get anyplace else," says Townsend. "African-Americans want to see themselves."

TV One president and CEO Johnathan Rodgers echoes Townsend, saying that adult African-Americans don’t see people who look like them on broadcast TV or on cable channels. "When we launched TV One, we saw a clear area of opportunity in serving African-American adults," Rodgers says. "There was no place for African-Americans to go and see themselves . . . African-American adults were taken for granted."

Vic Bulluck, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Hollywood Bureau, notes that while there are more multi-ethnic casts on mainstream broadcast TV, the current broadcast season only offers two with African-American lead actors — The Unit and Day Break (Day Break has already been canceled).

Africa Channel’s Reid says it’s not enough for African-American-focused channels to offer content that connects with a taken-for-granted demo — they need to be smarter local partners with cable operators. "We’ve had to be very innovative in terms of what we bring," Reid says. "It’s not good enough to bring good programming that’s well packaged and that’s never been seen. We have to demonstrate that we’ll bring value through marketing in local markets." He notes that in Atlanta, Africa Channel is working with schools and the organization Sister Cities International. "We’re working with the Atlanta school system and three of their schools on a pilot program pairing up students in those schools with students in Africa. It’s a dynamic learning experience. Comcast Atlanta is committed to the program and will begin active involvement in the coming weeks."

Africa Channel expects to gain carriage with the top four MSOs within the next few months.

Silent Partners

Bandwidth-enhancing technology like switched digital video may open things up for African-American programmers, but offers no guarantees. Cablevision is deploying switched video across its entire footprint, but the first group of channels to benefit will be non-English-language channels, according to a recent report by Craig Moffett, VP and senior analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., LLC. Cox and Comcast declined comment for this story, citing policies forbidding discussion of individual channels, or categories of channels. Executives at Charter Communications were unavailable for comment.

Despite this reticence, it’s safe to say cable operators are more interested in carrying African-American services than are satellite providers. The national lineup for EchoStar’s Dish service lists just one African-American channel, BET. DirecTV offers four, if you buy the Total Choice Premiere package for $86. It has two in its basic Total Choice package, at $39.99.

By way of comparison, in Philadelphia, the fifth-largest American city in terms of African-American population, Comcast offers four African-American-oriented channels in its upper-crust Digital Silver and Digital Plus tiers, and three in its basic $24.90 tier. In the No. 1 Africian-American market, New York City, Time Warner Cable’s lowest tier of cable channels offers BET, and for $10 more, at $58.95, the DTValue pack offers four, with Starz InBlack as an added premium option.

While that suggests cable’s doing a little better, from the channels’ standpoints, the track record isn’t great. In Philly, just half of all African-American-focused channels are getting a berth on Comcast.

"I’m disappointed we don’t have a greater variety of programming targeted to us," says Eugene Morris, CEO of the Chicago-based ad agency E. Morris Communications, and founder of the Association of Black-Owned Advertising Agencies (ABAA). He notes that programming on the more expensive digital lineups isn’t subscribed to by a large proportion of the African-American audience. "We tend to watch what’s in front of us, and that adds to the belief that that’s what we want to watch. The reality is, [operators are] losing a lot of viewers, particularly older segments.

"We don’t want to watch rap and hip-hop," Morris adds, referring to mainstays of BET.

This view comes as the gap is narrowing between the penetration of African-Americans who subscribe to digital cable and those who subscribe to satellite. Horowitz data tracking urban American markets show that in 2004, digital cable held a significant lead over satellite among African-Americans (35% penetration versus 15%). But in 2005, the margin narrowed to 25% for cable versus 18% for satellite (the situation improved a bit in 2006 — 28% versus 15%).

While this more or less mirrors a general-market trend, "African-Americans have traditionally been the most cable-oriented segment," says Adriana Waterston, Horowitz’s director of marketing and business development.

In fact, when judged alongside the general urban American population, African-Americans have a higher penetration of premium channels, a higher digital cable penetration and higher cell phone penetration, according to Horowitz’s most recent report. They spend more on long distance and watch more TV. The only cable business where African-Americans don’t over-index is high-speed Internet.

The Holy Grail: A Must-See Series

While those figures could help the channels as they try to snag carriage deals, their challenges hardly stop with distribution. Even elder statesman BET Networks desires to improve that other key revenue stream, advertising, and is feeling heat from a growing number of cable channels targeting African-Americans with individual shows. It also sees broadcast networks having great success attracting African-American audiences.

Yet BET Networks chief Debra Lee says, "I’m really thrilled with the success of Grey’s Anatomy," since the ABC hit has a multi-ethnic cast and was created by Shonda Rhimes, an African-American.

Sure, the increase of original programming on BET drove the channel to its highest ratings in 2006, "but when you have successful African-American-targeted shows on other kinds of networks, it’s a challenge [for us]," Lee notes.

But Lee’s also looking beyond those challenges, and is seeking the holy grail that all her competitors covet: a must-see, appointment-television series. She notes the success of recent BET originals Lil’ Kim: Countdown to Lockdown, Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is and American Gangster. "All of these shows have worked out, but we’ll always want the American Idol to knock the ball out of the park," she says.

Certainly other executives are excited by their latest shows. Rodgers notes TV One is rolling out an original series every quarter, including I Married a Baller, a reality series about women married to famous sports figures, premiering in April.

But while original content is growing, is it enough? "The challenge and the opportunity that they have is to discover new talent and new voices, and new ways to look at our culture," says the NAACP’s Bulluck, speaking of African-American-focused channels.

Everybody understands the "chasing their tails" situation that many channels face. If they don’t get enough revenue from distributors and advertisers, they won’t have the funds for great original fare in significant quantity. And while distribution remains limited for most, so too does advertising. "It all comes back to the same question: Do [advertisers] recognize that blacks aren’t dark-skinned white people?" says Al Anderson, chairman of Atlanta’s Anderson Communications and another founder of the ABAA. "If you look at the top 200 advertisers, you’ll find that more than half have no black [advertising strategy] at all."

It’s more difficult for smaller networks to attract advertisers. But BFC’s VP of affiliate sales and marketing Samara Cummins remains sanguine. "It’s little steps, and it’s not giving up. And one day we’ll have the critical mass to get the advertising dollars," she says.

African-American Programmers’ Roundup

A host of cable channels have shows on their schedules that are of particular appeal to African-Americans. For example, Gospel Music Channel programs 40% of its schedule with African-Americans in mind, and they make up the same proportion of its audience, according to the service’s vice chairman and co-founder Brad Siegel. What follows is information about those networks that are fully dedicated to serving the interests of African-Americans.

THE AFRICA CHANNEL

Launched: September 2005

Subscribers: Around 1 million

Management: James Makawa, founder/CEO; Bob Reid, EVP and general manager

Target Audience: 25-54

Comments: Executives expect that by the end of the second quarter, affiliation agreements will be signed with the country’s top four MSOs. Also in the midst of signing its first European affiliate.

BET NETWORKS

Launched: BET 1980, BET J (as BET Jazz) 1996, BET Gospel 2002, BET Hip-Hop 2002

Subscribers: BET, 83 million; BET J, 22 million (other networks n/a)

Management: Debra Lee, chairman and CEO, BET Networks

Target Audience: BET and BET Hip-Hop, 18-34; BET J and BET Gospel, 25-54

Comments: Last year BET Jazz morphed into BET J, with a slightly wider musical focus. The group also launched BET Mobile, inked a content deal with iTunes, added broadband content to BET.com and relaunched its international distribution efforts. It’s debuting a BET Films unit in 2007.

BLACK FAMILY CHANNEL

Launched: September 1999 (as MBC)

Subscribers: 16 million

Management: Rick Newberger, president/CEO; Robert Townsend, president and CEO, production

Target Audience: families, 18-34, 25-54

Comments: Robert Townsend has launched 15 original series in the last three years, and he expects to launch two new series in the next two months, including Rising, which focuses on newbie music talent. A key challenge on the distribution side is scoring at least one satellite deal.

STARZ IN BLACK

Launched: 1997 (as BET Movies)

Subscribers: Over 17 million

Top Executives: Bill Myers, president, Starz Entertainment; Bob Clasen, chairman and CEO, Starz LLC

Target Audience: 25-39

Comments: Starz InBlack remains the only premium channel specifically targeting African-Americans. Starz Entertainment director of program acquisitions, Brett Marottoli, says it’s celebrating its 10th anniversary during Black History Month with a huge retrospective of films from the last few decades.

TV ONE

Founded: 2004

Subscribers: Around 35 million

Top Executive: Johnathan Rodgers, president and CEO

Target Audience: 25-54, 18-49

Comments: TV One has carriage with two of its investors, DirecTV and Comcast, along with Cox and Time Warner Cable. Rodgers reports that this year TV One will beef up its streamed programming via broadband in three genres: public affairs, lifestyle and gospel/spiritual.

 

Squeezed by Cable’s Mainstream

Nickelodeon is one of many mainstream cable channels giving African-American-oriented services a run for their money. Nick’s Romeo! series, featuring the father/son hip-hop duo Master P and Lil’ Romeo, scored top ratings with African-American kids last year. Nick is hoping for similar success with new series Just Jordan, which features the young actor-comedian Lil’ JJ.

ABC Family last month debuted its first series featuring African-Americans in prominent roles, Lincoln Heights. The drama centers on a police officer who moves his family into his old neighborhood, which is now filled with crime and drugs.

Some networks say attracting African-Americans isn’t a mandate, but an organic process. Tim Brooks, EVP of research at Lifetime Networks, notes that Lifetime was the No. 4 ranked network among African-Americans, and No. 1 among African-American women during prime time in 2006. While its programming often includes multicultural casts, the secret to its success also is its large slate of movies that feature "women who find ways to overcome difficulties," Brooks says.

A similar big-picture process occurred with Cartoon Network’s Class of 3000, which features the voice of André Benjamin, a co-creator and co-producer of the series. "We didn’t sit down and say, ‘Let’s create a show for the African-American audience,’" says Jim Samples, EVP and general manager of Cartoon Network and Adult Swim. "We think André [Benjamin] is terrific; we love his music. So we sat down with him, and out of that came Class of 3000." End result: Class went to the head of the class, ranking No. 1 among African-American kids aged 6-11 when it began in 2006.

TBS sees a lot of promise in the upcoming House of Payne series, featuring Tyler Perry (Diary of a Mad Black Woman). "We did a test on [local Atlanta station] WTBS, and it had huge numbers," says Ken Schwab, SVP of programming for TBS and TNT. – JS

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