More Start-Ups Eye BET's Space

Two new networks are emerging as potential competitors to Black Entertainment Television for a share of the African-American and multicultural marketplace.

Former Fox Family Channel general manger Tracy Lawrence is planning to launch an entertainment-based multicultural service that may eventually partner with troubled African-American service New Urban Entertainment Television (NUE-TV).

Meanwhile, Comcast Corp. executives are talking to rap-music mogul Russell Simmons about a potential urban music channel that would showcase the latest music videos from the world of rap and hip-hop.

And Viacom Inc.'s 72-million-subscriber BET is looking to extend its own brand with several start-up digital networks.

Lawrence, who left Fox Family earlier this year after the network (now ABC Family) was sold to The Walt Disney Co., is assembling an as-yet-unnamed service that plans to launch in 2003. It will target African-Americans and be mostly multicultural in nature, she said.

The privately financed service also has recruited former TCI.Net general manager Robert Davenport as CEO and independent producer Jacque Edmonds as programming chief. Davenport was most recently with digital subscriber line provider Covad Communications Inc. Edmonds was executive producer of UPN's urban sitcom Moesha
and co-executive producer of the sitcom Living Single, which now airs in reruns on USA Network.

Lawrence would not discuss financial backing or potential license fees, but said she was shooting for digital and analog distribution and wants a mix of original and acquired product. She said the network is in negotiations for "strategic partnerships" with some program suppliers.


Though Lawrence is prepared to launch the service independently, she also is exploring a partnership with the beleaguered NUE-TV. That network, currently in fewer than 10 million cable homes, has severely curtailed its operations while seeking $10 million to $20 million to keep running.

Sources said African-American-owned broadcaster Radio One Inc., which owns a minority stake in NUE-TV, is rethinking a potential multimillion-dollar investment, given the current economic climate and the difficulties in gaining cable distribution.

Calls to Radio One CEO Alfred Liggins were not returned by press time.

Rumors had Lawrence taking the reins at NUE-TV after she left Fox Family. She said she's been in "active communications" with the programmer, but would not reveal further details.

As Lawrence reaches for more entertainment and lifestyle programming, the Russell Simmons-backed network would try to capitalize on the popularity of urban hip-hop music and culture.


The tentatively named Fabulous TV also targets a 2003 launch and would showcase hip-hop music videos and music-related programming, said sources close to the situation.

It's unclear whether Comcast would own a stake, but sources said the MSO would play an important part in the service's development and distribution.

Comcast's growing portfolio of programming-network investments include stakes in E! Entertainment Television, start-up video game network G4 Media, The Golf Channel, Outdoor Life Network and the Comcast Sports Net regional sports services in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Comcast spokesman Tim Fitzpatrick would not confirm or deny an interest in Fabulous TV. He said only that the MSO is "always interested in exploring new programming ideas."

Simmons could not be reached for comment at press time.

Simmons, the founder of Def Jam Records, has worked with Home Box Office on several programming projects, including the popular Def Comedy Jam
stand-up comedy series in the 1990s. HBO recently renewed Simmons's critically praised Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry.


Both networks will seek an audience they believe is underserved.

While Hispanic and female audiences have several well-distributed networks aimed at their interests, Lawrence noted, BET is still the only highly penetrated service targeting African-Americans.

Previous attempts to launch such services have failed due to lack of financial support or, in the case of NUE-TV and Atlanta-based Major Broadcasting Corp. Network, a lack of substantial distribution.

"There is a need for a new creative vision of a cable network that targets the multicultural audience," Lawrence said.

BET spokesman Michael Lewellen said the programmer isn't overly concerned with potential competition. To further extend its reach within the African-American community and to thwart competition, BET plans to launch the digital services BET Gospel and BET Hip Hop.

"It's good that media entities are finally recognizing the value of the African-American audience," he said. "We'll take a wait-and-see attitude with the new services."

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.