One year after Viacom Inc.'s blockbuster purchase of Black Entertainment Television, several African American-targeted networks are fighting an uphill battle against a much more formidable competitor.
Despite continued calls for more programming for African-American viewers, industry observers said Viacom's $3 billion acquisition has given BET and its related analog and digital services greater leverage — thus making it more difficult for upstarts New Urban Entertainment Television (NUE-TV), Major Broadcasting Co. and Word Network to register significant distribution gains.
Nevertheless, executives with those channels believe that operators will ultimately recognize the need for differentiated programming targeted toward the growing community of African-American cable subscribers.
"Operators know that the African-American community has been underserved," said MBC executive vice president Travis Mitchell. "They realize that we're not duplicating our efforts with BET. Operators are looking to expand the adult 25 to 54 audience because those are the people that are writing the checks."
MBC, now in 13 million households, has slowly gained subscribers in urban markets with its mix of family-oriented entertainment and sports programming. The network said it now has a presence in 38 of the top 50 urban markets and 19 of the top 25.
Through a combination of analog and digital cable growth, the network has been able to add nearly 10 million homes since the beginning of the year, Mitchell said. "We've exceeded our subscriber goals, and we expect to be available to 20 million homes by the end of the year."
Detroit-based Word Network, which primarily offers religious and gospel-music programming, also has recorded modest growth over the last 12 months, to place itself in 21 million combined cable and direct-broadcast satellite homes, network vice president of operations Lewis Gibbs said.
Even NUE-TV — which has severely curtailed its operations as it seeks additional funding — is in nearly 10 million analog and digital cable homes. NUE, however, may soon receive a cash infusion from African-American-owned radio broadcaster Radio One Inc.
Last week, Radio One CEO Alfred Liggins said his company is "strongly considering" a major investment in NUE, but declined to be more specific. The network has been looking for between $10 million to $20 million to keep afloat.
Still, the combined subscriber count for the three networks pales in comparison to BET's almost 71 million households. And industry observers said BET, along with sister services BET On Jazz and four other BET digital services — BET Gospel, BET Hip-Hop, BET Classic Soul and BET International — will inevitably gain greater leverage as they are packaged with others in Viacom's stable.
"It's going to be difficult to avoid carriage of BET's digital services if they're sold along with, say, an MTV [Music Television] or an MTV2 as part of a [standard] rate card," said one MSO executive, who wished to remain anonymous.
Word's Gibbs admits that the landscape has changed since the Viacom-BET merger — and not in a positive way for his network.
"We've been fortunate to have some good, steady growth despite the changing environment," he said. "But it's going to be difficult to go up against BET's gospel digital channel, given Viacom's muscle in the marketplace. They certainly have some leverage."
Yet despite the advantages afforded BET through its relationship with Viacom, neither the independent Word nor MBC are actively seeking partnerships with cable conglomerates. MBC president Marlon Jackson — who owns the network along with cable veteran Alvin James, lawyer Willie Gary, former baseball player Cecil Fielder and ex-heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield — has said
several companies have approached him about investing in the African-American targeted service.
"We are not actively looking for investors, but at the same time won't turn down a great deal," Jackson said. "We're not going to just jump at any offer; it has to make sense for us."
Gibbs was more adamant about keeping Word independent. "We have no interest whatsoever in selling any stake in the network," he said.
ENHANCED QUALITY AND QUANTITY
Instead, Gibbs said the channel will continue to pursue its goal of providing quality religious programming targeted to African-Americans. Along with its signature gospel music and urban-ministries fare, Lewis said the network would soon add several new shows and series.
Word has already signed popular gospel performer Bobby Jones to host several shows on the network, including Bobby Jones Presents … Gospel on Stage,
which showcases new and upcoming Gospel music talent, Gibbs said.
The network — which has distribution deals with AT&T Broadband, Comcast Corp., Cox Communications Inc. and DirecTV Inc. — will team with the National Football League to sponsor a gospel music show during Super Bowl week that will air on the network in February, Gibbs said.
Word has also reached an agreement with movie production company Cloud Ten Pictures to distribute a number of spiritual-oriented theatricals like Left Behind
and Judgement Day.
MBC is also moving forward with an ambitious slate of new programs set to debut in 2002. The service has stepped up its commitment to sports by offering more than 70 live events from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — nearly twice as many as last year, Mitchell said.
Supporting its live game coverage is a weekly magazine show devoted to HBCU sports.
Later this month, the network will begin airing originally produced one-hour dramatic plays as part of its MBC Theater
series, Mitchell said. MBC has also acquired the rights to 100 classic African-American movies, including The Wilby Conspiracy, Miracle in Harlem
and The Jackie Robinson Story.
MBC is also set to debut a number of originals in the next few months, including The Lounge, a one-hour weekly video show featuring Hip Hop, Jazz and Gospel music with positive messages; The Yard, a half-hour weekly show focusing on the historical achievements and programs from HBCU's; and Digital Spin, a 30-minute weekly series focused on the newest technology and gadgets created by African-American entrepreneurs.
During first quarter 2002, MBC will also introduce daily, two-and-one-half minute news updates on the hour, according to Mitchell.