Former Family Channel president Tracy Lawrence will again test cable's entrepreneurial waters, launching a hip-hop based premium network in 2004.
The service, dubbed Hype TV — for Hot Young People's Entertainment Television — will offer uncensored versions of popular rap and R&B music videos, as well as original public affairs, movies and other content targeted to the hip-hop community.
Lawrence, along with former Diva Systems programming head Peter Griffith, will make a second attempt at launching a hip-hop channel with Hype TV. The duo had teamed with rap music entrepreneur Russell Simmons to create Fabulous TV, but parted ways after Simmons chose to follow other entrepreneurial interests.
Hype TV, however, will be offered commercial free as a premium service, which Lawrence believes will make it more appealing to MSOs.
"We've had very positive reception from the affiliate community. [The premium-carriage option] lowers the bar in terms of distribution," she said, adding the service would be priced more on the level of a "mini-pay," which sell in the $3 to $5 range.
The pay format would also help differentiate it from other new urban or African-American-targeted networks such as the Comcast Corp. and Radio One venture TV One or Major Broadcasting Corp.'s channel, Lawrence said.
And it will allow Hype TV to stand apart from networks such as Black Entertainment Television and MTV: Music Television, which already offer heavy doses of hip-hop and rap music-video programming.
"Hip-hop may be driven by African-American artists, but the appeal of hip-hop is so much broader than anything you'll see on Black Entertainment Television, TV One or MBC," she said. "There's a need for a new vision of what American culture is, and it's about a multi-racial audience all united under the hip-hop banner."
At least one Top-3 MSO senior executive believes that a 24-hour, hip-hop channel will be well received by the industry.
"Hip-hop culture is mainstream and suburban kids, African-American kids and Hispanic kids are dancing to a hip-hop beat," said the executive. "There's clearly a market for it."
Lawrence would not reveal startup costs, but said the network has secured an undisclosed amount of financing from Newbea Ventures, an investment fund backed by professional athletes such as Aaron Beasley, a cornerback for the National Football League's New York Jets.
"Hype TV will present the true hip-hop that will not only include music and the lifestyle but the emerging effects from its pro-social and political ideals," Beasley said in a statement.
Lawrence said the network would entertain outside investors — including MSOs – but would remain predominately African-American owned and operated.
"In order to be true to the concept and brand, it needs to be controlled by people who are within the hip-hop community," she said.
The pay format could also help the network to stay "real" and have credibility within the hip-hop community: It could run uncensored programming, including music videos and frank discussions on issues of interest to young urban viewers of all races.
"Any other version of hip-hop [programming] is a watered-own version," said Griffith. "The hip-hop community is starving for a network like this …[and] our carriage strategy will give us the freedom to be true to the hip-hop audience and deliver a no-holds-barred destination for hip-hop devotees."
Media executives serving the hip-hop community are already lauding the development of the network and are pledging marketing support.
"It's providing a new opportunity for an audience that's tremendously underserved," Vanguarde Media Group publisher Len Burnett said.
Vanguarde will help promote the network through urban-based magazines Heart & Soul, Honey and Savoy.
"BET is a wonderful network and MTV and VH1 do a good job," Burnett said. "But the idea of really creating a station or a place where the young adult community can come and look at music and entertainment specifically targeted toward them I think is a unique proposition that no one has taken the time to fill."
Hype TV has also inked a marketing partnership agreement with Blue Flame Marketing + Advertising, a division of Hip-Hop mogul Sean "P Diddy" Combs's Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment Group. Blue Flame's president, Jameel Spencer, said his company will provide creative marketing support, deliver substantial tie-in opportunities to Bad Boy promotions and events, and provide access to talent for appearances and testimonials.
Along with music videos, the network will feature public-affairs programming, original and acquired movies and series produced from a hip-hop perspective.
"We're in detailed conversations with the studios and independent producers for product," Griffith said, although he would not provide further details.
Griffith also said Hype would provide operators with appealing, video-on-demand programming that will be refreshed on a more frequent basis than typical VOD offerings.
"We'll have available movies and original programming for operators, not only through the linear channel but also on a VOD basis that cater to this demographic," he said. "With videos from the labels that we know going to be a big draw, we believe we have something that we can really offer the MSOs because it's a place where the consumers will want to go."