Putting a Premium On African-Americans


When you consider the top-rated cable networks among African-American households, Black Entertainment Television, Turner Network Television and ESPN probably come to mind first. But in 2004, premium network Home Box Office ranked third among all households in that group on a total-day basis.

In fact, HBO and other premium services like Showtime, Cinemax, Starz! and Encore all rank among the top 15 highest-rated networks on a 24-hour basis.

With a heavy concentration on theatricals and a commitment to developing original programming that explores the lives, history and experiences of people of color, premium networks have enticed a significant number of African-Americans to pay about $12 a month in subscription fees.

“Being a premium network, it’s incumbent on us to deliver programming that we feel is worth plunking down that subscription price,” says HBO executive vice president of affiliate marketing Olivia Smashum. “So I think by definition we have always felt that we couldn’t do what everyone else does.”

And the strategy has worked. African-Americans represent about one quarter of HBO’s and Showtime’s subscription base, while making up 18% and 16% of households the receive Starz! and Encore respectively. Executives say the networks provide quality comedy, drama and documentary programming for and about African-Americans that most other networks don’t.

“I know the [broadcast and cable] network business really well … and [African-American] programming is just not the highest priority for them, unfortunately,” says Showtime Networks Inc. president of entertainment Bob Greenblatt, who has worked for ad-support networks and produced programming for them as well. “You get the occasional Damon Wayans show or George Lopez show, but there’s hardly ever a drama that represent the Black community. But it’s always been a hallmark of this place.”

Indeed, very few networks have attempted a scripted drama with an African-American cast for fear it wouldn’t appeal to a general audience. But one of HBO’s current series staples is gritty cop show The Wire, and Showtime ran Soul Food for five years. Though Soul Food’s run recently ended, Showtime will take another stab at the genre when it debuts Barbershop later this year. That scripted series is based on the popular film of the same name — which was Showtime’s top-rated theatrical film last year. Other programs in development for the network include original films profiling tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams and Larry Doby, the second African-American to join Major League Baseball. There’s also a movie project featuring rapper/actress Eve.

Starz Encore Group LLC has gone one step further, dedicating an entire pay network specifically to showcase African-American programming: Black Starz! In the network’s mix are theatricals that prominently feature African-American actors, as well as original documentary programming such as The Last Of The Mississippi Jukes, which chronicled the history of blues and this month’s Unstoppable, which profiles three veteran Black movie producers.

“We’ve dedicated an entire channel to African-Americans because we think that’s such an important audience for us,” says Stephan Shelanski, senior vice president of program acquisitions, scheduling and planning for Starz Entertainment Group. “Because of Black Starz!, it allows us to gets the Starz! name out there in general, so [African-Americans] are coming to the Starz Family’s other networks as well.”

Tapping The Creative Community

The pay services’ commitment to African-American programming hasn’t been lost on the creative community. Actress/producer Halle Berry, who executive produced HBO original movie Lackawanna Blues, bowing later this month, says cable in general and premium services in particular have opened the doors of opportunity for African-American actors and directors. Other producers such as Spike Lee (Showtime’s Sucker Free City) and filmmakers Julie Dash (Black Starz!’s Funny Valentine) and Raoul Peck (HBO’s Sometimes In April) have all had projects greenlit by the premium networks.

“[Premium networks] care about our stories, and they care about diversity,” says Berry, who will also host an upcoming Showtime special, For Love of Liberty, a documentary which gives voice to black soldiers’ letters from various wars.

“They realized early on that [African-American programming] is where a lot of their money is made. The world has become more diversified, and people want to see all kinds of stories,” Berry adds.

Showtime has been reaching out to the burgeoning African-American creative community for 12 years with its annual Black Filmmakers Festival. The festival provides an opportunity for emerging producers to have their movies aired on Showtime each February during Black History Month. The winning producer gets a $30,000 grant to produce another film to air exclusively on Showtime, according to the network.

Among the festival filmmakers that have gone on to produce theatrical movies is Malcolm Lee (The Best Man, Undercover Brother).

“It’s a rare opportunity to reach out to young filmmakers and give them a chance to do something in and around the big leagues,” Greenblatt says. “It’s another angle that may not necessarily get us a lot of additional viewers, but it’s one of the ways we can reach out into the community a bit.”

HBO is also cultivating the creative community by sponsoring the annual American Black Film Festival. As part of its sponsorship, Smashum says the network often provides up-and-coming producers access to its talent in an effort to give them a look at what it takes to be successful.

“It’s a wonderful way of giving emerging filmmakers insight into the creative process of HBO, how it works, and what makes a story particularly unique and in terms of the voice HBO brings,” she says.