Sun staff predicts the Ravens-Jets game

Black cable channel debuts today

The Associated Press

Cable TV viewers now may have more than 100 channels to flip through when they turn on their televisions, but Johnathan Rodgers says there's still something missing for black viewers.

Sure, there are networks for men, women, animal lovers, game show fans and even people nostalgic for old soap operas. But what the typical African-American viewers don't see when they tune in, said the president of a new network geared toward blacks, is many people who look like them.

"If you want to see a makeover show where your hair and skin happens to be a different texture or color, what do you watch? If you want to see a horror movie where the first person killed isn't black, where do you go?" Rodgers asks.

The answer, he hopes, is the upstart TV One network that debuts today, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in several metropolitan markets across the country, including Baltimore. With a mixture of lifestyle shows, documentaries and reruns of old sitcoms and dramas, TV One hopes to woo an audience that Rodgers says is starved for black-oriented programming.

TV One and its corporate backers, Comcast Corp. and Lanham-based urban radio company Radio One Inc., are taking on the dominant and largely unchallenged leader of the urban television market -- Viacom Inc.'s BET.

Broader appeal

TV One says it targets a different demographic, saying it will go for viewers aged 24 to 54 who might not be interested in the hip-hop and other youth-oriented programming on BET.

However, industry analysts say the two likely will compete for viewers and advertising money, although they note that on cable systems with so many different choices, there is probably enough room for both.

"There should be more than two cable channels that aggressively target African-Americans in a universe of more 200 channels," said Jason Helfstein, a media analyst with CIBC World Markets Corp.

Rodgers, a former Discovery Communications Co. executive, said Comcast and Radio One created TV One because of a dearth of program for the largely untapped black adult audience, an audience he calls "underserved."

Market research seems to confirm that -- Neilsen ratings from 2000 show blacks watched much more television by household and demographic group than the general population. But only one network, BET, actively seeks to solely tap the estimated $631 billion in buying power that blacks flexed in 2002.

A new network likely will be attractive to people frustrated with the current shortage of black programming on cable, according to Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News, a Chicago-based black media trade publication.

"Anything that comes on TV One we already know is targeted to me as an African-American viewer," Smikle said. "If I have to sit through Discovery Channel to wait for something that is specific interest to me as an African-American, I could be waiting a while."

Original shows planned

The product of a deal forged last year between Comcast and Radio One, TV One begins with a commitment from both companies and other investors for $130 million over the next four years. It will air Monday and be available to 2.2 million cable subscribers in such markets as Washington, Detroit and Atlanta.

For the first few months, much of TV One's programming will be a mix of new shows combined with such retreads as sitcoms "227" and "Good Times," as well as the short-lived CBS drama "City of Angels." A six-hour miniseries on King will also air Monday to mark the civil rights leader's 75th birthday.

The network plans to add original programming in the coming months, such as a showdown between gospel choirs for a cash prize, a dating show hosted by radio personality Russ Parr and a series hosted by diva Patti LaBelle during which she will dish out decorating advice, sing and do just about everything with a camera in tow.

There are no plans for a news show.

TV One has an edge on most cable startups that have to cajole cable carriers to include them in service packages. With Comcast as part-owner, the network has been able to get a spot on the analog tier of service in many markets. That means viewers who already get expanded basic cable packages won't have to pay extra for TV One.

Marketing push

Radio One, which will own a 40 percent of the new venture, also will plug the network on the 66 radio stations it owns in Baltimore and 21 other urban markets. Rodgers said Tom Joyner will promote the show on his syndicated morning radio show and host a special during TV One's first day of programming.

But the channel has not cracked some large urban markets, including Philadelphia -- where Comcast is based -- New York and Los Angeles. A week before its launch, it still hadn't signed deals with cable carriers other than Comcast.

"In the long run, that is not enough if they are going to try to build a national network," said David Bank, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets who covers the broadcasting industry. "They are going to need carriage on every multiple service (cable) operator."

Then there is the BET challenge. Rodgers is adamant that TV One is meant for a different audience, the type of viewer more interested in a documentary on slavery reparations than the latest rap video.

"I do not regard BET, MTV, ESPN or any network that goes after a different demographic as a competitor," he said.

BET undaunted

But BET sees things differently. The network, which reaches 74 million households, revamped its programming last year to add gospel shows and a nightly newscast. It also has separate networks for jazz, hip-hop and gospel music.

BET vice president Michael Lewellen says it is the top-watched cable network among 18- to 49-year-old black prime-time viewers. The perception it is just for the younger set is false, he said.

"In certain parts of the day you will find our programming skewed toward a younger audience, but in prime time and late night our audience demographic is considerably older," he said. "We wish them (TV One) well in an already crowded cable landscape."

Founded by entrepreneur Robert L. Johnson in 1979 with a $15,000 loan, BET was sold to Viacom in 2001 for $2.9 billion. He now owns a hotel-development firm, RLJ Development LLC, which recently entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement with Baltimore city officials to build a 750-room Hilton Hotels Corp. building adjacent to the Baltimore Convention Center.

The proposed Hilton is expected to create 461 jobs and contribute $4.4 million a year to the city in taxes and other revenue by the fourth year of operation, city officials said.

While TV One has a lot in its favor, the network still will have to fight to establish itself in that crowded landscape of channels, Bank said. Being one of only two black choices isn't going to keep viewers watching if the programming doesn't draw them in.

"They are still going to have to compete with 500 other channels on the air. A person could be any ethnicity and they are still going to watch the NFL on another station. Are they going to have enough programming to attract not only the BET viewer but also the general market viewer?"

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