Upstarts Aiming at BET

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Black Entertainment Television's exclusive hold on
African-American-targeted cable programming could be in jeopardy, as AT&T Broadband
& Internet Services executives continued to meet last week with upstart-network
executives in an effort to find a programming vehicle to reach what the MSO considers to
be an underserved audience.

Not to be outdone, BET itself late last week pitched
AT&T Broadband on a new analog/digital entertainment service to compete with at least
four other newly proposed African-American oriented services.

At stake is a carriage commitment from AT&T Broadband
— similar to a proposed agreement with upstart Oxygen — to launch an
African-American-targeted service to at least 7 million of the MSO's subscribers by
2001.

“There are portions of our consumer base that are
underserved, and I believe the African-American community is one of them,” AT&T
Broadband president Leo J. Hindery Jr. said.

“I think the need is immediate, and it's
something that I'm concerned about and that I will commit our resources to, he
added.”

BET Networks — which already offers three basic or
premium services — is planning to launch a public-affairs/entertainment-based service
later this year, said Curtis Symonds, executive vice president of affiliate relations for
BET.

The yet-to-be-named service — which could be offered
as both an analog and digital network — will be made available free to subscribers
with the hope that it will receive solid distribution.

“The network is a response to what we're hearing
the industry needs,” Symonds said.

While BET currently has more than 52 million subscribers,
some operators and industry observers have criticized the network for offering too many
music videos and infomercials and not enough original entertainment and
public-affairs-oriented programming.

Such criticism has spawned several upstart networks to
compete with BET for the African-American audience. Some industry observers believe there
is certainly room for more African-American-targeted programming, particularly given that
audience's propensity to watch television.

African Americans watch 70 hours of television per week
— 40 percent more than non-African Americans — according to a TN Media Inc.
study. Also, African Americans watch 9 percent more primetime television and 75 percent
more late-night television than their counterparts.

The newest entry vying for AT&T Broadband's
attention is a family-oriented network that will have a heavy gospel influence.

MBC Network has the financial backing of several prominent
African-American sports, entertainment and business personalities such as heavyweight
champion Evander Holyfield, former baseball all-star Cecil Fielder, Jackson Five pop-music
group member Marlon Jackson, famed lawyer Willie E. Gary and veteran broadcaster Alvin
James.

Along with original, “spiritually involving”
programming, the network will also feature a home shopping segment that will be tied in
with its soon-to-be-developed Internet site (mbcnetwork.com).

“We're trying to bring family-values programming
back to television and to cable with a gospel influence,” Fielder said.
“We're 100 percent minority-owned, and we have the financial staying power
already in place; we're not looking for any more [financial] help.”

The network — which has been up and running for nearly
one year, and which has 3 million C-band subscribers — has already met with most of
the top MSOs, network executives said. The service will initially be offered
free-of-charge to operators.

MBC joins several other networks targeting the
African-American audience. Space Station TeleVision — an African-American-owned
company that includes entertainment entrepreneur Quincy Jones as a principal — plans
to launch a network later this year that will target the urban market. It will offer
entertainment and lifestyle programming with crossover appeal to white audiences.

Don Cornelius, the creator of Soul Train, is teaming up
with former Federal Communications Commission member Andrew Barrett to launch a separate
African-American-targeted cable network.

Cornelius declined comment, but Barrett said the channel
would draw on the library of old Soul Train episodes — hundreds of hours of tape
— for its programming.

Barrett and Cornelius have talked to AT&T Broadband,
Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable about their proposed channel, which is envisioned as a
digital service.

Hindery would not comment on which service or services may
have the upper hand, or on whether AT&T Broadband would consider offering more than
one of the networks.

He did say that once a service is decided upon, he would
seek carriage support from other MSOs in an effort to provide widespread carriage of a
network or networks.

Space Station TeleVision already has a deal to be carried
on AT&T Broadband's Headend in the Sky, but Hindery said that would not
automatically give it access to the MSO's cable subscribers.

Ted Hearn contributed to this story.

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