The funeral of Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks last month drew widespread coverage from the major cable news channels. C-SPAN even carried the seven-hour funeral live and replayed it several days later.
Yet cable’s three major African-American targeted networks — Black Family Channel, Black Entertainment Television and TV One — provided only limited coverage of the memorial service for the 92-year-old woman who galvanized the Civil Rights movement 50 years ago by refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white passenger.
Unlike the well-funded 24-hour mainstream news organizations, executives from minority-targeted networks say they often have to walk a fine line between devoting financial resources to expensive news programming and entertainment fare that attracts strong ratings.
While news on Spanish-language networks have thrived from a ratings perspective — in November, Spanish-language news drew 84% of the total Hispanic news viewing audience according to Telemundo — executives from African-American and Asian-targeted networks say limited resources for news shows and inconsistent viewership have forced those services into offering news vignettes or the occasional hour-long public-affairs program.
Some networks are resigned to acquiring news programming from other countries in an effort to provide targeted information to their viewers.
Such efforts have often garnered networks like BET and TV One criticism for not providing more news and public-affairs programming from their own communities — most recently, in regard to the Rosa Parks coverage.
National Association of Black Journalists president Bryan Monroe was recently quoted in journalist Richard Prince’s “Journal-isms” Web log as saying that televising the Parks memorial should have been a “no brainer” for the African-American targeted networks. “I’d even bet it would have pulled a better rating than a few more hours of music videos. It was history,” he added.
But TV One CEO Johnathan Rodgers takes exception to such views. “Like other general-entertainment outlets like Lifetime Television, USA Network or Turner Network Television, news is not a regular part of TV One’s schedule,” says Rodgers. “I truly think it’s an unfair question to minority-targeted networks that we have an obligation to do news when it’s not a question for other people — and when there exists, on the cable dial, news that is for all people.”
Rodgers does admit that the Comcast Corp. and Radio One Inc. owned network should have devoted more air time to the Parks funeral.
Rodgers also feels that mainstream news networks like Fox News Channel and Cable News Network do an adequate job covering topics and issues related to all Americans, including African-Americans.
But Black Family Channel news director Greg Morrison contends that minority-oriented networks often provide a unique perspective and defer to community sensitivities better than mainstream news outlets. He points to the African-American community’s backlash against broadcast and cable coverage of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
“[The mainstream press] didn’t understand why people were upset over the use of the word 'refugee’ to describe people forced out of New Orleans, or why black people were described as 'looting’ while white people were 'finding,’” he says.
“There’s so much more texture to our stories and issues that mainstream media gloss over or just don’t get. [Minority network news stories] aren’t necessarily done because there’s a police car there and someone’s in a body bag,” adds Morrison, whose network is planning to launch a dedicated weekly news program in 2006.
Other executives say they believe that news and informational programming is critical to a minority network’s appeal to its audience. Asian-American-based service AZN dedicates several hours daily to in-language news programming acquired from various countries including the Philippines, Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan, according to network senior vice president of affiliate and ad sales Bill Georges.
“News is an important part of the network,” Georges says, adding the 13 million subscriber network may look to develop originally produced news and information programming in the near future.
The fledgling Africa Channel is also importing several news magazine shows, including Carte Blanche Africa, a 60 Minutes-type show produced in South Africa, and Africa Journal, a Reuters-produced, weekly magazine show. Network executive vice president and general manager Bob Reid says that such programs provide a different perspective on Africa that goes beyond the political strife and famine that’s often portrayed by the mainstream media.
“We can’t compete with [British Broadcasting Co.], Fox News, MSNBC or the other [national news] networks, but we can provide a perspective on the news that puts [Africa] in a context that isn’t often provided by the mainstream news,” says Reid. He adds that the network will launch an Africa-based daily business news show in 2006.
Though news is an important resource for minority networks, its value often isn’t reflected in the ratings. BET last August cancelled BET Nightly News after five years on the air due to a lack of consistent viewership.
“It’s up to the viewing public to watch what’s on,” said Roland Martin, executive editor of the African-American owned daily newspaper The Chicago Defender. “Common sense says that if I’m putting on a news program and 150,000 people are watching, but I can put on an entertainment program that’s going to attract 750,000 viewers, the entertainment program is going to win out.”
With minorities, particularly African-Americans, accessing the Internet and radio stations in greater numbers for their news and information fix, minority cable networks will have to find innovative yet inexpensive ways of presenting the news on television.
“Everybody has a responsibility to provide news and information to their viewers,” says Martin, who also provides commentary for TV One news vignettes. “The question is: How you do it to a point where it’s cost efficient and where it makes sense for the viewer as well as the company itself?”
For Black Family Channel, that may mean using unconventional street reporters to report the news from communities that the mainstream press may miss or ignore altogether.
“We may have to think out of the box and get community-based contributors to get a discussion going about a particular topic,” Georges says. “They may have a particular bias, and we have to recognize that, but it may be a way to get an issue out front so that others become interested in it.”
For others like TV One, it’s placing its resources toward issues and stories ignored by the mainstream media. Rodgers says the network has covered events like the annual African-American-oriented Bud Billiken parade, the issue of reparations and the life of the late Ebony/Jet publisher John H. Johnson that mainstream networks virtually bypassed.
“If an African-American is elected president, that should be on our air 24/7,” says Rodgers. “That’s not news, but a significant event that affects our community.”