Cable Nets Seize Black History Spotlight

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A growing number of cable networks are using Black History Month to spotlight their efforts to produce African American-targeted programming.

But while they tend to get more credit for attention paid to the genre in February, network executives said their goal is to deliver relevant content for and about African Americans year-round.

"We believe this is an opportunity to highlight the programming that we show throughout the year," said Showtime Networks Inc. vice president of original programming Pearlena Igbokwe. "Showtime really does target programming to African Americans throughout the year, because it is an important part of our constituency."

In February, Showtime will premiere the movie Bojangles, starring Gregory Hines as tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. That and a second film, They Call Me Sirr, will be shown at local screenings hosted by Showtime and its affiliates, including AT&T Broadband, Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable systems.

Showtime will also shine the spotlight on the winners from its ninth annual black filmmakers contest in February, both on the network and at the Hollywood Black Film Festival.

Home Box Office will host its first Black History Month film festival. It will screen the new original movies Boycott
and Dancing in September
in 14 cities, according to director of marketing services Maria Weaver. HBO will promote the free screenings in national publications such as Essence
and Vibe.

The new programming will be featured on-air under the umbrella theme "Sharing the Stories," said HBO director of target marketing Bernadette Aulestia.

Affiliate response to HBO's current Black History Month subscriber-acquisition campaign was the best in five or six years, Alestia said. Participating cable operators are expected to drop direct-mail pieces at more than 2 million targeted homes, she said.

"Traditionally, Black History Month has been one of our signature campaigns, especially given the amount of original programming we put out in any given year," the HBO executive said.

Cox Communications of New Orleans promotes diversity and artistic expression among school-age children through its Black History Art Contest, now in its sixth year. This year, Cox and its co-sponsors-which include HBO, Black Entertainment Television and The History Channel-awarded $10,000 in prize money.

Another sponsor in the art contest was the New Orleans Museum of Art, which will display the winning pieces on its walls throughout February.

The museum also hosted the awards dinner earlier this month, Cox New Orleans manager of education and community services Brad Grundmeyer said. BET brought a motivational speaker to the event.

Although the submitted artwork was required to depict a prominent event or person in African-American history, the Cox contest was open to children of all ethnic backgrounds, Grundmeyer said.

Education is also a common Black History Month theme for programmers. Network executives spoke of the need to share details of historical events with those too young to remember.

"We're taking the story to a new generation of people," said Aulestia of HBO's upcoming film about the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.

Next month, BET Movies will premiere its new nonfiction block, called The Heritage. Each Friday night in February, the network will air The Black PantherPerspective, featuring some documentaries and films that have never been aired on U.S. television. Kathleen Cleaver, once the highest-ranking female Panther, will host the series.

"I hope we will continue to bring programming to BET Movies with topics that otherwise would go unnoticed," said senior manager of multicultural program acquisitions Brett Marottoli.

The network is talking to affiliates about local screening events for Public Enemy, which could include discussion sessions with former Black Panthers members.

Networks typically devoted to historical events and people, such as A&E Network and The History Channel, have packaged programming related to African Americans in February.

"It helps us to celebrate Black History Month, but we do this all year long," History Channel executive vice president and general manager Abbe Raven said.

Both History and A&E work with Cable in the Classroom and provide special educational content on their respective Web sites.

Courtroom Television Network in future years will provide teaching aids for its Great Legal Mindsin African American History
60-second spots, vice president of public affairs programming Fred Cambria said.

Six new honorees were named to this year's list, based on their contributions to the legal profession, Cambria said.

"We use the Thurgood Marshall litmus test" when choosing those to honor in the programming spots, Cambria added. The Cosby Show
actress Phylicia Rashad, who hosts the Legal Minds
series, made recommendations this year.

Nick at Nite is using its genre, comedy, as a backdrop for race-related issues. In its Salute to Black History Month on Friday nights, the network will feature relevant episodes from comedies such as All in the Family
and Maude.

"We tried to select episodes that were not just superficially inclusive of diverse casts" but also address issues, Nickelodeon executive vice president and general manager Cyma Zarghami said.

"As we try to continue to break through the barriers of race, the most significant way to get through some of them is to continue the dialogue," Zarghami said. "What sitcoms continue to do is to create conversation-make people talk."

Disney Channel, BET, Lifetime, Home & Garden Television and Turner South also plan special programming in honor of Black History Month.

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