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My Turn

New Chapter in a Success Story

9/24/2007 7:42 AM

New York — Eric Brown says he spent 13 years in cable operations, lastly as head of Charter Communications’ six-state Western Division. He loved it, but every day was starting to seem like the one before.

So when The Africa Channel came calling a year ago, seeking carriage, “it plucked a nerve,” Brown said last Wednesday night on the way out of the Walter Kaitz Foundation benefit dinner in New York.

The Kaitz dinner raised $1.7 million to benefit groups that help members of ethnic and racial minorities find meaningful careers in cable operations and programming.

Brown, a 47-year-old African American originally from Hampton Roads, Va., has taken a “leap” amid his own meaningful career, switching to network programming. Going over to “the dark side,” former colleague (at Century Communications) Maggie Bellville joked while friends clustered around Brown as he was leaving the event at the New York Hilton.

Brown said his father, John T. Brown, was an educator in West Africa. So he had a built-in interest in the subject matter – programming from Africa. He then started running into channel CEO James Makawa and president Jacob Arback at the same community events in Long Beach, Calif. He found they shared a desire to have Africa not always be represented as torn by conflict or beset by famine.

“The story’s told by Africans, which is a little different perspective,” Brown said of the channel’s programming. The story is told through a mix of dramas, talk shows, soap operas and music programs, and about 20% of the schedule is taken up with Reuters news from Africa.

“Have you seen the reel?” enthused Craig Watson, VP of communications at Brown’s former system in Long Beach. “It’s amazing.”

Manny Martinez, VP and general manager of Charter’s Central California and Nevada division, said the channel would be joining his digital lineup in Nevada, at an unspecified time. The state has a mixture of Latinos and African Americans, Martinez said, adding, “I think it will cross over very well.”

Brown said the programming should appeal to fans of Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel and Travel Channel, with healthy doses of African dances and music.

Only about three weeks into the job, Brown’s new business cards were gone by the end of the Kaitz dinner, and the two-day NAMIC conference that preceded it.

Brown kept in contact with the Africa Channel founders, who agreed there was a good fit. His earlier marketing background helps, even though he’s never been in affiliate sales, pitching operators on carriage for Africa Channel outside such key existing markets as Baton Rouge and New Orleans, La., (Cox); Detroit, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. (Comcast) and, on Charter, Fort Worth, Texas.

Brown puts the U.S. distribution at about 12 million.

The channel, which launched in 2005, was still raising the funds it needed, Brown said. So he told the principals to let him know when they were ready. Meanwhile, he left Charter in March, playing golf and sharing family time.

The fundraising was completed in July, Brown said, while not disclosing how much. Initial investors include basketball stars Dikembe Mutombo and Theo Ratliff.

Brown started out in consumer-brand marketing (Procter & Gamble, StarKist Tuna) before breaking into cable at Times Mirror Cable in Irvine, Calif.

He reflected a bit on his opportunities and relationships during the Kaitz dinner and NAMIC sessions earlier in the week, he said. “I don’t know if I’d still be in the industry if it weren’t for organizations like NAMIC.”

Coming into cable not knowing anyone, “it was the NAMIC network that introduced me around, kind of showed me the ropes, and I’m very thankful.”

Spencer Kaitz, who co-founded the Kaitz Foundation (named for his late father), also mentored him, at the California Cable Television Association. Last night Kaitz “made a beeline across the floor” toward Brown, wanting to catch up.

Having made a mark in cable already, with the next phase of his career under way, Brown said that now “one of my priorities is making sure I give back.”

And for anyone who thinks the Kaitz dinner is basically just a nice annual gesture, he recommends more people who come to the dinner also attend NAMIC conference sessions, to get a better sense of the value of diversity initiatives in cable.

September