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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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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.