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Johnson Sets Sights On New Urban Cable Network

Black Entertainment Television founder Bob Johnson is looking to get back into the cable network business.

Johnson, along with the Ion Media Networks, is petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to grant a newly formed, Johnson-owned, African-American-targeted digital network must-carry status under “share time” licenses.

According to the petition, Johnson’s RLJ Companies, LLC would own 51% of  newly created Urban Television LLC -- Ion would hold 49% of the venture -- and the service would operate as part of ION’s digital channel offerings in 42 markets. Ion currently offers kid-targeted Qubo and lifestyles-oriented Ion Life as multicast digital stations.

According to an Ion and RLJ joint statement, the proposed share-time arrangement would allow Urban Television to operate “a continuous television program service aimed at serving the needs and interests of urban viewers and traditionally underserved minority communities. Urban Television will be a new addition to the current broadcast channel lineup, and Ion Media Networks will continue to operate its own broadcast networks.”

Further, the petition reads: “In order the avoid disputes with [cable and satellite distributors] that would undermine any realistic opportunity of Urban’s fledgling station group to survive, the parties respectively request that the Commission confirm, concurrent with the grant of this application, that Urban … would be entitled to carriage under the Commission’s rules.”

Although the network has yet to finalize its programming plans, Traci Otey Blunt, vice president of communications and public affairs for RLJ said Urban Television will most likely offer public affairs, lifestyle and health programming along with some entertainment fare.

 “We want to create programming that will respond to what the marketplace is seeking,” she said. “We’re not locked into anything yet, but if we’re successful and move forward I don’t think there would be a lack of [programming] opportunities focusing on the urban market."

The venture would mark Johnson’s return to cable after he sold BET -- which he founded in 1981 -- to Viacom for $3 billion in 2000.

“The thing about Mr. Johnson is that he never turns down an opportunity and he’s a very strong entrepreneur,” she said. “In the end it’s an opportunity that will benefit the consumer, so he’s moving forward to see what the FCC will do regarding this process.”

Otey Blount would not say whether Johnson would go ahead with the venture if the FCC fails to grant the service must-carry status.