Launching a 24/7 cable news channel is a daunting task. Just ask the managers at Al Jazeera, who tried to do it in 2013 with the Al Jazeera America channel only to see the struggling operation fold in 2016. And that was after paying a reported $500 million for Al Gore’s Current TV channel to gain access to some 35 million U.S. homes.
But J.C. Watts Jr., the former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, is about to take on the same challenge with the planned debut of the Black News Channel on Nov. 15. He is chairman and co-founder of the venture.
For all the talk by its founders of how cable TV with its myriad channels would serve diversity and democracy, one of the many ways that promise has not been fulfilled is in its failure to produce and sustain a long-running 24/7, all-news channel focused on the lives of African American viewers.
In an interview with The Sun, the 61-year-old Watts says he believes he can remedy that situation with the Black News Channel.
On its website, his channel promises to provide:
“Programming dedicated to covering the unique perspective of African American communities";
“Access to information and educational programming to meet the specific needs of this growing and dynamic community, which is a major consumer of subscription television services";
“A new voice that represents African Americans in mainstream media and fosters political, economic, and social discourse”;
And “programming (that) will shed light on the unique social, economic, and political challenges facing urban communities and help close the ‘image gap’ that exists today between the negative African American stereotypes perpetuated by mainstream media news and our enterprising black communities.”
SUN: Mr. Watts, let’s start with access. What does it look like in terms of the Black News Channel getting on cable systems like Comcast. I remember, in writing about Al Jazeera America, how much trouble it had in terms of carriage. So, I am wondering if that matters to you or if there are other technologies now that it won’t matter so much today.
WATTS: Well, you nailed it. In being from Oklahoma and around the oil industry that last 30 years of my life, I know that you can look at the geology and the engineering and say, ‘Boy that looks great.’ But regardless of how good the geology or the engineering looks, if you don’t have the capital to drill it, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. So, in this space you’ve got to have two things: You’ve got to have distribution, and you’ve got to have capital.
People have tried to do it on many platforms, and we’re aligned with Charter and Comcast and DISH Net. But over the last three or four years, as you know, people aren’t just looking at TV in the front room of their homes. They can be in the office looking at it. They can be streaming. They can be on their phones. Ninety-two percent of our demographic have cell phones.
So, these days, you have to be wherever people are, and we’re comfortable that, on our launch date target of Nov. 15th, we’re going to be where they are. And we’ll continue to grow those numbers. And then, we do have the capital to get us where we need to be.
SUN: The digital technology really does, then, help you out in that consumers can access a live stream of your coverage online in addition to, or as an alternative to, watching on the cable TV platform.
WATTS: Right. You’ve got all the different streaming and digital platforms. We’re in discussions with all of those people and have contracts with some of them at this point. So, we think we’ve done it the right way. And again, I know some people who didn’t have distribution and tried it, and it’s awfully tough to push that boat uphill without distribution.
SUN: That’s one of the aspects of this that is so striking to me. Technology offers the means for making us more diverse. Yet, for all the diversity we are supposed to have in this fragmented media universe, there is not a 24/7 news channel like the one you are proposing focused on African American viewers. What’s your analysis of that?
WATTS: Well, there are a couple of people up in your neck of the woods, Bob Johnson and Cathy Hughes (founders of BET and TV One, respectively) ... who have become larger than life to me in the last three or four years as we’ve been working on launching this channel ... They’ve actually launched channels.
When you look at TV One and BET, they both had news, but they went to more of an entertainment platform. I don’t think that was a decision to say news wouldn’t work. I just think they chose a platform that they could do more efficiently and, at the same time, try to drive numbers and revenue.
You’re right, there’s no 24/7 news organizations out there. Research from the industry, from what we’ve done with programming trials and research in the last four or five years, it all says that the African American community will support a news network that is by them, about them and for them ... I don’t over exaggerate at all when I say that as we’ve traveled around the country doing our different launch events and media events in certain markets, the reception has been extremely good.
SUN: As you know, Baltimore is a majority black city, and I am wondering how viewers here will be able to access Black News Channel on TV.
WATTS: In Baltimore, we have a contract with Comcast ... They have not determined yet where they’re going to launch us. But you’re right: Baltimore is an extremely attractive market for us. Obviously, you can get DISH Net (satellite TV and Internet) there in Baltimore as well.
SUN: So, you’ve already got a contract with Comcast for Baltimore cable TV, but they have yet to determine what channel place you’ll have and when that will happen? Is that right?
SUN: How about the historically black colleges and universities? Your website says they will play a significant role in your channel. We have an outstanding one in Baltimore with a widely known School of Global Journalism and Communication in Morgan State University.
WATTS: You mention HBCUs, and that is one of the things that speaks to who we are. We are a news network that is culturally specific to the African American community. No disrespect to CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, but when it comes to wellness and health, for example, they don’t talk about sickle cell. Or, when it comes to education, they don’t talk about HBCUs. They don’t talk about things that are culturally specific to the African American community.
... I have thought for years that the HBCUs are an underutilized resource not just for the black community but for America ... They are a tremendous resource for us in terms of talent. They have tremendous journalism schools around the country, FAMU (Florida A&M University). Howard has a great journalism school in the D.C. area. We’ll have internships, employment opportunities and be involved in training the next generation of journalists. But outside of that, you’ve got a plethora of institutional knowledge ... When it comes to wellness, there’s a wealth of institutional knowledge, economics, research and development, North Carolina A&T with engineering.
SUN: It’s important for a 24/7 news operation to have remote facilities around the country. For example, Morgan has some excellent facilities within its School of Global Journalism. Would that be another use of HBCUs, having, say, Congressman Elijah Cummings connected out of studios at Morgan State on a day when he’s in Baltimore and news breaks?
WATTS: Exactly. When we launch we will have bureaus in Atlanta and Washington. We’ll have remote facilities in several other places as well. And well grow that. The operating center is in Tallahassee, Fla.
(Note: DeWayne Wickham, dean of Morgan’s School of Global Journalism & Communication, wrote in an email response to The Sun that he has not had more than a “cursory conversation" with the channel’s head of news "about a possible relationship with Black News Channel.”)
SUN: Last question, I have to ask about ideology in these highly partisan, culture wars days. While you were a prominent conservative congressman, my sense is that this channel is not going to present a right or left viewpoint. Am I right or wrong about that?
WATTS: You’re right ... But I don’t think we get to see the full picture of Americans of African descent here in the United States. I’m from an athletic background in some sense. (Watts was a quarterback for the University of Oklahoma.) But you see a lot about athletics and a lot about entertainment, but you don’t see — and even many black people don’t understand — the richness of the HBCU community. There are doctors and lawyers and engineers. And for every kid that makes a knuckleheaded decision and you see him or her in handcuffs on the evening news at night, for every one I can show you 50 who get up every day trying to figure out how to make their mother proud of them.
So, we don’t get to see the broad scope of the African American community and the richness of it. And when we talk about ideology, will there be people on the channel who have different perspectives? Yes, just like every other network. But we’re not looking to be left or right or Democrat or Republican. Quite frankly, I think we’ve become so concerned in our politics and even in our journalism about the left wing and the right wing, that the poor bird is dying.
SUN: Everybody has an ideology. Would it be fair then to say the ideology of the Black News Channel is to show the richness of African American life in this country?