Filling Supply for African-American Demand

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Entrepreneurial programmers are looking to turn digital video services into the new black for African-American viewers.

With African-Americans watching more linear television than any other group and staying among the most active viewers of content on mobile phones and tablets, some video over-the-top and digital-only services believe viewers will seek out — and ultimately pay for — content that showcases their images and stories.

“There’s tremendous demand by African-American consumers for content and that’s shown up historically in everything from TV viewing to pay-cable penetration,” Robert Johnson, CEO of movie-based OTT service Urban Movie Channel, said. “There’s also tremendous talent in the African-American community that wants to tell stories that the current system does not always tell.”

Johnson, who founded BET, said the OTT environment lets producers, directors and writers tell the stories they want without interference from a middleman distributor or a skittish advertiser. Johnson’s UMC offers a library of quality movies from around the world — many of which are exclusive — written, produced by and starring African-Americans.

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Launched in March 2015, the service charges $4.99 per month for access on computers, mobile phones and tablets via the Urban Movie Channel app available through iTunes.

“For the first time, there’s capital behind an OTT streaming service that will allow stories to be told in a differentiated manner free from fear of economic, political or advertiser censorship,” said Johnson, although he would not reveal specific subscriber numbers for UMC. “More and more African-Americans are becoming cord-cutters because they are now able to choose what they want to watch when they want to watch it, and take it to wherever they want to go to watch it.”

Another subscription OTT movie service seeks to reach a cross-section of older fans of ’70s “Blaxpoitation” movies and younger viewers interested in the classic flicks. Brown Sugar — which launched this past November and is run by the African-American-targeted Bounce TV multicast network — showcases a library of familiar African-American-themed films such as Shaft, Coffy and Super Fly.

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Calandria Meadows, VP of social media and digital content for Brown Sugar, said the $3.99 monthly service has been successful in generating subscriptions, although she would not reveal specifics. “African-Americans were being underserved with subscription video-on-demand services, so we created Brown Sugar,” she said. “African-Americans consume more video entertainment than any ethnicity, yet have been tremendously underserved by all forms of it.”

Big Viewing Target

African-Americans consumed 207 hours per month of live television during the fourth quarter of 2016 — well above the 147 hours watched by all viewers and the 113 hours generated by Hispanic viewers, according to Nielsen’s Total Audience Report.

African-American viewers also watched more video on smartphones than other ethnic groups, according to Nielsen.

“There’s no rocket science in determining who is watching the most television,” said Curtis Symonds, CEO of HBCUX, an educational and entertainment-based digital service offering programming for and about the 105 historic black colleges and universities.

Symonds said the service is uniquely positioned to serve young millennial college students who are accessing video content on their mobile phones and laptops. “Let’s face it, phones and iPads are quickly becoming the television for a generation of viewers,” he said.

Digital distribution doesn’t have to be the only way to reach the consumer in this emerging television environment. Symonds said he has thrown his hat into the ring for a coveted position among the two African-American-owned and targeted networks Comcast has promised to support in 2019 as part of conditions the MSO agreed to in its 2011 acquisition of NBCUniversal.

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Johnson has also not ruled out potentially offering UMC as a premium service on multichannel video programming distributor lineups. “We’re open to platforms that comport to our subscription model,” he said. “If there is an opportunity to create that model in any kind of platform, whether DirecTV or cable, we would be interested in that.”

UMC has already reached back to the cable industry for promotional opportunities, teaming with AMC Networks to stream episodes of WE tv’s African-American-targeted shows such as Braxton Family Values on UMC. UMC last week offered the first season of the docuseries in advance of the show’s sixth-season finale, which aired May 25.

“They get additional exposure from us and we get promotion from them,” Johnson said. “Those kinds of opportunities are only going to grow as we get bigger and offer more original programming.”

Brown Sugar has tapped a linear television partnership with parent Bounce TV to market and promote the service both on-air and online, according to Meadows, and recruited ’70s action-movie stars Pam Grier and Fred Williamson — plus contemporary hip hop artist Rick Ross — to get the word out.

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.