Q&A: BTNC's Steve Pruitt

Q: What is the Black Television News Channel?

A: We’ve been working on this effort for about four years and it is a concept that J.C. (Watts) and I talked about when we first teamed up shortly after he left Capital Hill. I think a lot of our energy and inspiration comes out of what we saw and what we viewed of the media coverage coming out of Hurricane Katrina. I had a daughter down there and personally went through the evacuation process. Having seen it from the ground level and then seeing what ended up on TV was pretty inspiring in terms of getting this effort up and running.

Q: How will the network differ from what we currently see in terms of news coverage about African Americans?

A: It will differ in three ways. Number one, this will fundamentally be a news channel that the editorial policy, the news staff, writers and on-air talent will all come from the African-American community. Given our experiences in life and in the media in general, we believe that we’ll look at things through a different prism. We may all see the same eight foot fish, but from a different perspective. We will be formatted much like a hybrid of Fox (News Channel) and CNN in terms of the news and special programming that we intend to do, but our personnel and editorial viewpoint -- and the people who are actually writing the news -- will give it a different perspective.

Q: Have you hired any on-air or production talent?

A: We’re in discussions with some people right now.

Q: The network has already reached a distribution deal with Comcast for carriage in several cities (Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Baltimore). On what tier level does your Comcast deal provide distribution?

A: The network will be on digital and will also be offered in high-definition. We have at least three other agreements with other system and satellite providers that are in the process right now that we hope to be announcing very shortly.

Q: Other attempts at launching an African-American targeted news network on cable have failed, mainly due to lack of funding. Why do you feel you will be able to accomplish the feat?

A: I think we are mindful of the cost and the requirements of doing so and have taken that into account in building it. We’ve been very cautious and conservative in how we’re building it, and what we think it will take to launch it. At this point we’re fairly confident that we will have fulfilled all of our dreams and expectations.

Q: Can you put a number on how much funding you’ve put together?

A: More than the cost of a gallon of gas. We’ve been working very hard to put together the funding to start, and we hope in the next few weeks to close the final gap that we’re working toward.

Q: When do you plan to launch the service?

A: Our objective is to launch in the first quarter, but internally we’ve talked about a February ‘09 launch as it relates to Black History Month, but there’s a lot of pressure building to be up and operational by Jan. 20, 2009 (The day of the Presidential inauguration).

Q: Has the historic presidential run of Barack Obama at all influenced your decision to launch the network?

A: Absolutely. I think what that campaign has shown to a lot of African Americans, be they young or old, is that there are plenty of opportunities in America, and we just we want to make sure we take full advantage of ours.

Q: Cable’s two African-American targeted networks, BET and TV One, are not offering significant news programming. BET has said its attempts at daily news shows did not draw a significant amount of viewers. Do you feel there’s a large enough audience for African-American news programming?  

A: There’s plenty of empirical data that shows that African-Americans both watch news and desire to see news that speaks to their concerns and attitudes about current events, so yes we believe that the viewership is there. Our demographics will be different than certainly BET’s, which focuses on a younger crowd.

Because we will be overwhelmingly original news programming almost hourly throughout the day, we feel we’ll have enough content and enough information that folks will want to tune in and watch.

While our programming will be targeted to a specific demographic, we will get a much wider viewership than most people would anticipate because we think we will bring a different perspective that will be fresh and new and more reality-based than some of the current coverage that we see today.

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.