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Keeping a Fabulous Outlook

Comcast Corp. is partnering with broadcaster Radio One Inc. to create a new network targeted to African-Americans, but hope springs eternal for other start-ups in that space — including one from impresario and Def Jam Recordings founder Russell Simmons.

He spoke recently with
Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about Fabulous TV, his hip-hop-based, multicultural network.

MCN: Were you disappointed with the announcement that Comcast is partnering with Radio One, as you also were talking to Comcast about a similar venture?

Simmons:
Not at all. There are nearly 200 channels out there, and I think that it is very good that Comcast can see clearly that people are looking for more diversity. It's just a great opportunity for both parties.

MCN: How does the deal affect your negotiations with Comcast?

Simmons:
That's a separate discussion [from Radio One]. You have to realize that the audience that we're chasing is 80 percent non-African-American. But even if it wasn't, there are still 200 channels available. Certainly, 10 percent of the population in America is black, but there aren't 20 African-American networks out there.

But I'm talking about the integrated idea of hip-hop. I'm talking about the mainstream phenomenon that drives all American culture today. The most important driving force in America is hip-hop, and it's 80 percent non-African-Americans that are the consumers of hip-hop.

MCN: Is it necessary to have a major cable entity like Comcast or Time Warner Cable boost your network's launch chances?

Simmons:
A lot of parties are very excited about our ideas and I expect to have support. It's true that there're only a few distributors out there, but I am confident that we can continue on our path.

MCN: Would you go on your own, if necessary, and try to launch as an independent network, much like Major Broadcasting Corp. has tried to do?

Simmons:
I don't discuss our strategies, but I'm still talking to a lot of people and I don't feel any less enthusiasm from any of those that we've talked to. I'm excited about where we are at, and I think we have something that's very different that's not on cable's 200 channels — that's for sure.

MCN: Do you have a timetable to launch the network?

Simmons:
It took six years for [clothing line] Phat Farm to become profitable. It took a lot of years to get my first rap record off the ground. Our advertising agency is just now turning a big corner for profits and it's been five years. OneWorld
[magazine] became profitable this year after five years. Things takes time, but I'm patient and I'm also very diligent. I never walk away from ideas.

MCN: Does it concern you that some observers are lumping your network and the Comcast-Radio One venture together as competitors to Black Entertainment Television?

Simmons:
I'm sorry that's happening, but that's American business. My clothing company is doing $300 million [in annual sales], and they somehow think it's ethnic, yet our biggest sales are in the suburbs. I'm sorry that some people don't realize that America is changing. I certainly don't think my clothing, my records or any of the programming are targeted [strictly] to African-Americans.

The audience for my Def Poetry Show
on Broadway is now 70 percent non-African-American. My ratings on [Home Box Office], when Def Comedy Jam
went off the air, were mostly from white viewers — I mean mostly like 85 percent. It started out a little more African-American, but it [eventually] looked just like the demos that watched the network in general.

I have never targeted any of my products to African-Americans — ever.

Nothing I do is [strictly] for African-Americans. What I do is for cool Americans.

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.