Historically Black Colleges and Universities will have a cable channel to call their own next summer with the proposed launch of the independently-owned and sports-themed HBCU Network.
The basic-cable service, targeting African-American and multicultural high school and college- aged students will be anchored by live Division I and II college sports programming from the major HBCU sports conferences, as well as HBCU-produced educational and entertainment programming, according to network CEO and former BET executive Curtis Symonds.
"This is an opportunity to talk about the 143-year history of HBCUs and provide opportunities for their growth and future prosperity and target a demographic that advertisers want to reach," Symonds told Multichannel News.
Independent holding company C3 Media LLC, comprising veteran cable executives Symonds, Clint Evans and Candace Walker, hold a majority financial stake in HBCU Network, which will be based in Atlanta. Symonds noted that the group is talking to other potential investors, but would not reveal specifics.
"We have some strong entities that have expressed interest in the channel and we're making good progress," he said.
The schools as a collective will hold a 20% interest in the channel, according to Symonds.
The network, which is expected to debut officially in August 2011, may roll out a "soft launch" in time for Black History Month next February, said Symonds.
HBCU Network is currently in carriage talks with several MSOs, although no deals have been reached. Representatives from Comcast Cable confirmed talks with HBCU Network officials, but would not elaborate. Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications and Charter Communications could not be reached for comment by press time.
Symonds projects that the network will launch with 10 million subscribers -- mostly through digital-basic and sports tier distribution. The network is proposing a monthly 7.5-cent per subscriber license fee -- well below the rates for other national college sports-oriented networks like ESPNU (17 cents) or CBS College Sports (22 cents) or the more than $1 fee charged by many regional sports networks, according to research firm SNL Kagan.
The network's primary focus is to launch within the 20-state HBCU footprint, encompassing the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and Southern regions of the country, according to Evans, the network's executive vice president of distribution and marketing.
HBCU Net will focus primarily on sports programming, devoting the majority of its primetime and weekend schedules to live and repeat telecasts of college action, according to Walker, who will serve as executive vice president of programming for the network.
HBCU Network is expected to offer live Division I & Division II Black College Sports events from the four major HBCU Conferences -- the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Southwestern Athletic Conference, Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
The network has worked out a deal with ESPN -- which currently has multiyear rights to SWAC and MEAC college football contests -- to select conference games once the sports giant has chosen its primary games for ESPNU.
"We are also working to lock up deals with the SIAC and the CIAA conferences," Symonds added.
The network is also planning to create a daily SportsCenter-esque HBCU sports studio show to run during the mornings, as well as a daily news show with information from HBCU schools, according to Walker.
While sports will serve as the staple of the network's primetime, Walker said the rest of the schedule will feature acquired and originally produced lifestyles programming that will designed to capture the culture, heritage and lifestyle of the HBCU community. She would not reveal specific programming titles.
A major component of the schedule will also include "edutainment" programming - a mix of educationally-based and entertainment programming mostly aggregated from various colleges and universities, including guest lectures, celebrity speakers and on-campus entertainment performances, according to Walker.
She would not disclose the network's programming budget, but said it will be an "adequate amount to deliver HD sports programming, some acquisition and originals that tap into the lifestyle and culture of the HBCU community."
Symonds says the network will not in compete with BET or TV One for African-American viewers, but rather will flank those services.
"It's a complement to what is currently in the marketplace that will hopefully allow people to look at the culture in a different way," Symonds said.
TV One president Johnathan Rodgers also doesn't see HBCU Network as a competitor, and in fact is in talks with HBCU Network to handle its administrative, legal and operational functions.
"I love the idea of the HBCU Network, and Curtis has been helpful to us throughout our six-year existence," Rodgers said. "In order to help him achieve success, we're in conversations to handle many of their back-end and backroom functions."