J.C. Watts, Black News Channel Look to Make History in 2020

Upstart service Black News Channel recently pushed back its launch date to January from November in an effort to finalize additional carriage deals for the network, which currently has agreements with Comcast, Charter Communications and Dish Network for select markets representing around 33 million linear-TV homes, with additional contracts for mobile devices and smart TVs. Primetime anchors named so far include former CNNer Fred Hickman, Laverne McGee and Anthony Amey.

Former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts says the ”intensity level” for Black News Channel has grown. 

Former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts says the ”intensity level” for Black News Channel has grown. 

J.C. Watts, co-founder and chairman of the independently-owned Black News Channel, spoke with Multichannel News about the decision to move the network’s launch date into 2020. Watts, who served as a Republican House member from 1995 to 2003 and was a star college quarterback, also talked about the network’s mandate to launch in a crowded, competitive television environment. Here’s an edited transcript of their conversation.

MCN: Why delay the launch of Black News Channel until January?

J.C. Watts: We have a chance to make history with the number of households/devices that will carry our product, so we wanted to make sure we have everything together for our launch. In the next two to three weeks we’re going to announce some partnerships that will take us beyond where we are now. It makes sense business-wise and in terms of distribution to wait. We only get one chance to make a first impression, so we’re now going to launch on Jan. 6.

MCN: Are there potentially new distribution partners on the linear side, or are they some of the newer streaming services?

JCW: It’s both. When we started this years ago, digital wasn’t as big as it is today. The first question I received from our two biggest sponsors was, “what’s your digital strategy?” So we had not fully thought through that even though it was on our radar screen. Today, 98% of African-American millennials have cellphones, and 68% say that they get their news information from that cellphone. It has turbocharged itself over the last two or three years, so we’ll soon announce some partnerships that will allow us to be relevant where our audience gets its information from.

MCN: Do you have any sense of how many households the network will launch with in January?

JCW: I think, [in terms of] households, we’ll be in the 33 million range, but we’ll significantly increase our reach with some mobile deals. I feel comfortable in saying we’ll be able to announce those partnerships in the next three to four weeks.

MCN: How would you define the Black News Channel brand?

JCW: We are a brand that will be culturally specific to the African-American community. When you look at the landscape on linear television and even on the digital platforms, there’s very little news, information, educational and inspirational content that is culturally specific to us. The news channels today disproportionately talk about crime, athletics and entertainment more than news pertaining to us culturally. So that is our brand, and we say while those other things exist, there's more to the black community than what’s on the linear and digital platforms.

MCN: How important is the concept of Black News Channel given some of the developments we’ve seen recently on the political front, as well as in the culture?

JCW: I can say without exaggeration that the intensity and the relevance is more intense today than it’s been in the last 10 years. The culture of politics certainly has something to do with that. I testified before the Senate Commerce Committee a couple of weeks ago, and I said to them in all of the 200-plus channels that you can get on your TV dial, there’s not one place in that lineup that you can go to get content that educates and informs, and that is culturally specific to the African-American community.

Black News Channel anchors will include former CNNer Fred Hickman (l.) and Laverne McGee. 

Black News Channel anchors will include former CNNer Fred Hickman (l.) and Laverne McGee. 

We’re talking about current affairs, wellness, information on the HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) community — there's nowhere you can go for education and information. The community has recognized that for many years, and our research says that African-Americans will watch content that is culturally specific to us, and that’s who we are.

MCN: Why do you feel this is the best time to launch Black News Channel?

JCW: Today, compared to two years ago or 10 years ago, the intensity level for the service has actually grown. There’s nothing that would encourage us to believe by any stretch of the imagination that the service is not desired by the community. We already have carriage today with Charter, Comcast and Dish, and we’ll have our digital deals in place that give us an opportunity with the carriage and the capital to sustain where we need to be going forward.

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.