Eric Brown spent 13 years in cable operations, lastly as head of Charter Communications’ six-state Western Division. He loved it, but every day was starting to seem like the one before.
So when The Africa Channel came calling a year ago, seeking carriage, “it plucked a nerve,” Brown said last Wednesday night, on the way out of the Walter Kaitz Foundation Fundraising Dinner.
The Kaitz dinner raised $1.7 million to benefit groups that help members of ethnic and racial minorities find meaningful careers in cable operations and programming.
Brown, a 47-year-old African American originally from Hampton Roads, Va., has taken his own “leap” in mid-career, switching to network programming.
Or going over to “the dark side,” as former colleague (at Century Communications) Maggie Bellville joked while friends clustered around Brown as he was leaving the event at the New York Hilton.
But it may not have been that big a leap. Brown said his father, John T. Brown, was an educator in West Africa. So he had a built-in interest in the subject matter — programming from Africa. He then started running into channel CEO James Makawa and president Jacob Arback at the same community events in Long Beach, Calif. He found they shared a desire to have Africa not always be represented as torn by conflict or beset by famine.
“The story’s told by Africans, which is a little different perspective,” Brown said of the channel’s programming. The story is told through a mix of dramas, talk shows, soap operas and music programs, and about 20% of the schedule is taken up with Reuters news from Africa.
“Have you seen the reel?” enthused Craig Watson, vice president of communications at Brown’s former system in Long Beach. “It’s amazing.”
The Africa Channel founders agreed there was a good fit. Brown gained some marketing expertise working for Procter & Gamble and StarKist Tuna, before breaking into the TV business at Times Mirror Cable in Irvine, Calif.
That helps, even though he’s never been in affiliate sales. Now, he’s pitching operators on carriage for Africa Channel outside such key existing markets as Baton Rouge and New Orleans, La., (Cox); Detroit, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. (Comcast); and Fort Worth, Texas (Charter). So far, the channel has picked up distribution to 12 million U.S. households.
And there are signs of more to come.
Manny Martinez, vice president and general manager of Charter’s Central California and Nevada division, said the channel would be joining his digital lineup in Nevada, at an unspecified time. The state is home to a mixture of Latinos and African Americans. “I think it will cross over very well,’’ he said.
And, only about three weeks into the job, Brown’s new business cards were gone by the end of the Kaitz dinner, and the two-day National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications Conference that preceded it.
Brown believes the programming should appeal to fans of Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel and Travel Channel, with healthy doses of African dances and music.
The channel, which launched in 2005, was still raising the money it needed, Brown said.
So he told the principals to let him know when they were ready. Meanwhile, he left Charter in March, playing golf and sharing family time.
The fundraising was completed in July, Brown said, who didn’t disclose how much. Initial investors include basketball stars Dikembe Mutombo and Theo Ratliff.
To him, the Kaitz dinner and the events that surround it, like the NAMIC Conference, are meaningful. “I don’t know if I’d still be in the industry if it weren’t for organizations like NAMIC,” he said.
Coming into cable not knowing anyone, “it was the NAMIC network that introduced me around, kind of showed me the ropes, and I’m very thankful.”
Spencer Kaitz, who co-founded the Kaitz Foundation (named for his late father), also mentored him, at the California Cable Television Association. Last night Kaitz “made a beeline across the floor” toward Brown, wanting to catch up.
Having made a mark in cable already, with the next phase of his career underway, Brown said that now “one of my priorities is making sure I give back.”
And he recommends more people who come to the dinner also attend NAMIC Conference sessions, to get a better sense of the difference that such diversity initiatives make in cable-industry careers.