Chicago -- BET Holdings Inc. chairman Robert Johnson went
on the offensive last week in the debate over the need for a new family-values
African-American channel, questioning the need for such a service when BET already offers
several channels targeting African Americans.
Johnson said he was "perplexed" by recent calls
from AT&T Broadband & Internet Services president Leo J. Hindery Jr. for a
family-values channel targeted to an "undeserved" African-American community,
given the fact that BET offers four services targeted to that audience.
Johnson noted that while Black Entertainment Television has
57 million subscribers, offshoots BET on Jazz, premium service BET Movies/Starz!3 and
BET's digital gospel service have minimal carriage.
"We have responded to the African-American
community," Johnson said. "But what has been missing is the cooperation of the
operators. They have not accepted the programming that is already available, and it raises
the issue as to whether we've been treated fairly within the industry."
Hindery has said that he would commit AT&T
Broadband's resources and lobbying clout to a new African-American family-values
network. Sources said AT&T Broadband made an offer similar to one it presented to
Oxygen -- to give such a service 7 million subscribers by 2001 if the network lands other
Last week, MBC Network -- led by African-American
celebrities such as heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield and former Major League
Baseball star Cecil Fielder -- pitched operators at the National Show here.
MBC co-owner Alvin James said MBC already has deals with
Comcast Corp. and Peak Communications, and he hinted that it could land Adelphia
Communications Corp. soon.
"We're looking to take some responsibility to
provide family-values-driven programming as an alternative to what's on network and
cable TV today," he added.
While the service, currently carried on C-band, primarily
features gospel programming, James said, it will "evolve" into a more
broad-based, family-oriented service with several new and original shows.
"We're trying to give operators the assurance
that we can compete with other [entertainment] networks, rather than being perceived as a
gospel network," he added.
Johnson said he would be willing to work with operators to
develop a new public-affairs and entertainment service -- if the industry supported it
with significant distribution.
He added that his company would soon pitch a new network
with different economic models to operators to determine what would work best.
In fact, Johnson said, he would be willing to create a
nonprofit service if the industry is willing to help fund the venture. He estimated that
it would cost upward of $40 million.
"If it has to be on a 50-50 basis and we
don't make any money, we're willing to accept that if the industry wants
it," Johnson said. "If the industry is really serious, we would put together a
not-for-profit channel that makes sense for everyone."
BET plans a new slate of original programming for the
1999-2000 season, which includes a new late-night talk show and 10 original movies.
The network will also launch a multimillion-dollar
marketing campaign touting its programming and position within the African-American
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