Bob Reid: Content Key to Cable’s Future - Multichannel

Bob Reid: Content Key to Cable’s Future

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After nearly four decades in the television and cable business, Africa Channel president Bob Reid will retire next month and relocate to Africa to launch
a new, independent production company that will create entertainment programming for the channel and other international outlets. In a wide-ranging
interview, Reid spoke with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about his TV career, the future of content distribution and the
long-term prospects for multicultural-themed cable networks.

MCN: Why do you feel the time now to step away from
the cable industry?

Bob Reid: It’s a combination of things. I’ve been running
the Africa Channel for seven years, and that’s a long
time to do something in one place. You get to a point
where maybe it’s time to do something different and explore
other aspects of the things that you have in your arsenal,
and producing is probably the most natural thing
that I do.

In the early days of the Africa Channel, I did a lot of the
actual content on the network, but I think what the Africa
Channel really needs now is a strong push to continue it on
its way and to get it in its rightful place among networks. I
think I’ve given it my best shot and I think it’s good to have
the Africa Channel take a fresh look to see how it achieves
those goals.

MCN: If producing is what you want to do, why choose
to create a production company in Africa instead of here
in the U.S.?

BR: I don’t know if I would be doing this if it was to just
set up a company in L.A. Part of the reason I even came
to the Africa Channel is because of the opportunity to
really get to know Africa; to do something positive about
the image that Africa has in the
West and to help the Westerners
understand to better appreciate
the great talent, history and culture
that’s Africa; and to personally
make my own connection to
my homeland. It’s a way for me of
returning to the land of my ancestors
in a way that I can hopefully
make a diff erence while doing
something I enjoy and being
able to continue a career that’s
been pretty rewarding.

MCN: Do you feel that you’ve accomplished
what you wanted to
at the Africa Channel?

I would like to have the Africa
Channel fully distributed
on all platforms, and it deserves
that. If you look at what the Africa
Channel offers viewers, it is
unique in television. It launched
without having reruns that people
have seen a thousand times
over on broadcast and other cable
networks, but with original,
first-run quality content in the

I would be lying if I said this has
been easy, because Africa for all
of those years was called the Dark
Continent because of what people
didn’t know about it. And even
though people know a lot more
about it now, if you don’t watch
Africa Channel, a lot of what they
know is still from the “dark side” of
the content, in the sense that it focuses
on the negative as opposed
to illuminating all the great positives
in culture, opportunities,
art, history and

But getting as far as
we’ve gotten has been
with great effort, and
thankful ly [we did]
through the help of
some very enlightened
and supportive people
within the cable industry.
But the channel is
not where it should be,
and I hope that folks
will take a fresh look
at it and see that it has
broad appeal and deserves
the kind of distribution
that will allow
people to see it.

MCN: What do you take away from how the industry
has developed during your career and where do you
think it’s headed going forward?

BR: What we don’t know is how
the Internet will impact all media,
and I would broaden that to
how the digital revolution will
impact all of media and the notion
of multiple screens and TV

Clearly, it’s an evolving aspect of
the business, the final results of
which are likely to be very dramatic,
fairly unpredictable and
potentially disruptive. How the
younger generation of viewers
will watch and consume content
has the potential to dramatically
impact all of media. As a result
of that, content really is king,
because whatever platform one
watches, it’s the content that is the
core of the industry going forward.

I’ve been around long enough to
see the transition from analog to
digital and to see the universe expand
from three broadcast outlets
in a given market to literally hundreds
of outlets in every market.
Fortunately we’re living at a time
and space where there are great
opportunities … [and] technology
is so inexpensive right now that
you can be a content producer and
provider for very low cost of entry.

It’s the distribution outlets that
are in question going forward. You
have a phenomenon like YouTube
where anybody can put their content
up, but the question is how
can you market and monetize it. I
hope we’re not headed to a place
where everything is available to
anybody anywhere for free because
that is not a sustainable model. As we figure out how
to monetize content and as the universe is redefined such
that every individual can create his or her own personal
viewing preferences and have them, it becomes very exciting,
but also very scary.

MCN: With Comcast set to launch several multicultural
cable channels over the next few years, how do you see
the multicultural space developing within the industry?

BR: Comcast is to be lauded and applauded for its commitment
to diversity. Comcast has been a good partner
for Africa Channel, and although they are launching
these channels as part of an understanding and agreement
in gaining approval of a merger, it was the right
thing to do.

The thing about narrowcasting is that if you’re a distributor
on any platform, you have to think about whom your
audiences are, and we know through all surveys that African-
Americans consume more media and television, adapt
earlier to new technologies and are much more likely to
pay more for specialized programming services. Unfortunately
it’s an audience that is taken for granted because
people assume that African-Americans will watch something
on CBS or ABC or Fox or Discovery, and you don’t
necessarily have to offer specific, targeted networks.

Just look at how long it took the industry to go from one
African-American targeted network in BET to two in TV
One to three in Africa Channel. It took 25 to 30 years to
get to the point where there are even three or four channels,
so it’s been a slow pace of understanding in the industry
that this is a valuable and indispensible portion of
their audience and that there are profi ts to be made out of
serving it well.