I recently talked to HBCU Network CEO Curtis Symonds about the progress of his upstart sports and lifestyle network, which focuses on the 105 historically African-American independent colleges and universities. The wide ranging interview also hit on the opportunities and challenges within today’s multicultural cable environment, as well as Comcast Cable’s commitment to launch a number of multicultural owned-and-operated networks under its NBCUniversal merger agreement with the FCC.
An edited transcript follows.
TU: Now that Comcast Cable has closed its application process for its proposed two African-American channels and one English-language Hispanic channel, are you confident that HBCU will secure one of the proposed channel slots?
Curtis Symonds: We feel that we’re in a good position if you’re looking at doing something with a channel that meets the criteria and principles that Comcast is looking for. We have a well-established group of executives running the channel; our programming scheme is right on point, because no one is tapping the young college audience of the HBCUs; and we’re right in the realm of being good community citizens. I think that we’re right in line with everything we need to do, and we’re getting good and decent feedback. We’re in a good position to rock and roll with the network.
TU: You were at the forefront of getting BET to where it is today in terms of distribution and industry recognition. Compare the cable environment that BET had to go through in the 1980s and 1990s compared to now with regards to trying to establish an African-American targeted channel on cable.
CS: I think when you talk about changes you have to look at the changing from basic to digital [distribution]. When we were coming up at BET, the one thing that made BET attractive in the late 1980s and early 1990s was the fact that other markets were starting to blossom with cable. We were a good fit at the time because operators needed a product that was in touch with the African American audience, so it made sense to go after BET at that time. With the digital world in the 2000s, space is very tight. One of the things that makes this HBCU network a strong possibility is the brand – the brand alone is very strong in the African-American community. The brand of BET I had to build over time, but it turned out to be a good brand because the markets were starting to open up.
Operators have asked me if I thought I was backing myself into a [niche] corner by calling it HBCU Network, but what they don’t seem to understand is that the college audience that we’re going to go after is going to be the audience that other schools and people are going to watch because of the rich cultural environment that the HBCU’s offer, from the step shows to the entertainment environment to the educational environment. I think that will appeal across the board to both black and white viewers. There are also so many good people from entertainers, to political figures to athletes that have come out of the HBCU environment.
TU: Does your experience in the industry give HBCU a leg up on maybe some other proposed and upstart networks that don’t have the cable leadership experience as part of their network makeup?
CS: I think the leg up will be the management team that we’ve put together. The number one thing that I think works for any new network is relationships. I came out of ESPN with good relationships that I was able to spin those relationships over to BET, and I feel I can spin those same relationships over to HBCU, because I think I’ve been fair with what I can deliver. With those good relationships and a good business plan I think we’re going to grow this business.
TU: Given Comcast’s focus on launching multicultural services, do you thing other operators will also be more willing to launch multicultural networks?
CS: I think the industry is beginning to understand the value of the multicultural audience, but still the positioning that is always perplexing to me is that you have people that making [distribution] decisions that have never really lived in this environment. It always amazed me over the years at BET that the industry was happy to have one black channel, but you could have 20 Hispanic channels and no one had a problem. When you look at the culture there are so many different things that African-Americans like, so why couldn’t you create some other channels that were meaningful. The problem was that most operators were very lenient toward opening the door and trying [other African-American-themed channels], but were willing to try a pet channel or this and that channel. But the African-American customer is the most loyal customer and also the most underserved customer in cable.
The other tough part today is what new networks bring to the table financially. Most channels coming to the table in a niche market are competing against other networks that are backed by major [media companies].
TU: Is there a market for new multicultural networks and content in the digital space, whether its from over-the-top services or video on the web?
CS: I think you have to be all the way there. Our goal is not to just basically hang our hat on cable but our goal is to be in every different technology that you can put your hands on. The college environment that we’re going after is not watching television as much – they’re [watching content on] mobile and PC – so it will require us to be more aggressive in trying to find all the right avenues to make sense for those eyeballs. We certainly have to figure out every way to get our message out there.
TU: What’s the timeline for the launch of HBCU net?
CS: We’d like to go into September with some streaming and webcasting to incubate the channel throughout website to give people a flavor of what our network will look like and then in February 2012 during Black History Month we plan to launch the network on a 24-hour basis.
TU: Will you go ahead with the network in February whether or not Comcast chooses HBCU Net one as one of their proposed African-American network launches?
CS: We’re definitely going to forge ahead. For me this is history. If you look around the table and see ESPN paying $300 million to create the [Longhorn] Channel, and what’s being paid to the SEC, Pac-10 and on and on, and yet the [four major HBCU conferences — the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Southwestern Athletic Conference, Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association] that have the most guys in the NFL Hall Of Fame and they can’t get their own channel, I think it’s time.