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African-American Channels Come to Life on Comcast

A pair of new African-American-targeted networks will launch later this month with an eye toward gaining distribution and viewership traction in a crowded, evolving TV universe.

Cleo's Just Eats With Chef JJ

Cleo's Just Eats With Chef JJ

Afro, an entertainment network owned by Orlando, Fla.-based programmer Afrotainment, and Urban One-owned Cleo, targeted to African-American female millennials, will launch on Comcast Cable systems on Jan. 19 with about 8 million subscribers, according to sources close to the situation.

Afro and Cleo are the last of the eight minority-owned channels Comcast agreed to launch under a memorandum of understanding with U.S. regulators related to its 2011 deal for NBCUniversal. Both seek a foothold as multichannel video programmers are subtracting rather than adding networks in a bid to be more nimble against such streaming competitors as Netflix, Hulu and the virtual MVPDs.

“At this point the best way to reach viewers in general and younger viewers in particular may not be with a traditional cable channel,” NPR television critic Eric Deggans said. “I’m not sure those viewers are going to be waiting around for Comcast or other distributors to launch a channel that they’ll have to sit in front of a TV and watch.”

Executives from both networks said they are up to the challenge. Afro, which debuted as a subscription service on Dish Network in 2010, offers movies from around the world that feature people of color in front of and behind the camera. It also offers such originals as daytime talk show Point of View, in which women of color from around the world bring perspective on topical issues, and a late-night comedy series, Afrotainment founder and CEO Yves Bollanga said.

Afrotainment would not disclose specific viewer or subscriber numbers, but Bollanga said audience data shows there’s interest in content that portrays a wide range of African-American images and stories.

“To a lot of people we may be unknown, but we’ve been in this business since 2005,” he said. “Comcast is going to launch us with a substantial amount of households, and we’re having discussions with all distributors.”

Cleo will launch on Comcast and Charter systems with the goal of reaching 12 million subscribers by year-end, said TV One general manager Michelle Rice, who will oversee day-to-day operations. The network will target an audience of 18-to-49-year-old African- Americans looking for content that speaks to them.

“The network does not have a license fee, and because of that we think the game is scale and wide distribution for the network,” she said.

Cleo will offer mostly lifestyle programming, including cooking-themed series Just Eats With Chef JJ as well as Cleo Speaks, a series where viewers can offer their perspectives on issues facing millennial and Gen X women of color, said Rice.

While the industry is in the midst of change, Afro’s Bollanga said networks that can provide value to MVPDs will remain in play for carriage.

“The industry has evolved to a multiplicity of platforms where viewers can watch content,” he said. “The industry has matured and you don’t have a lot of pockets of growth, so in that sense it’s much more difficult to demonstrate that your channel is going to bring additional revenue to an MSO. But if you can demonstrate value, [MVPDs] will listen.”

R. Thomas Umstead
R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.