Slow Build for Black Family Channel

Black Family Channel is determined to pull itself out of obscurity, again. The network, which barely registered a blip in its previous five-year incarnation as MBC, generated some attention as an alternative to African-American networks BET and the adult-focused upstart TV One in May 2004, when founders including boxer Evander Holyfield and Jackson 5 brother Marlon brought in actor and director Robert Townsend as CEO and president of production.

By October that year, MBC had re-launched as Black Family Channel with a renewed focus on zeroing in on an untapped niche, the African-American family. Its goal is to reach distinct demographic groups throughout the day with original programming.

Among its shows is Thou$and Dollar Bee, a spelling competition that is part of its kids block; Spoken, a program about street poets; Partners in Crime, with standup comedians; and sports news, largely focused on African-American colleges.

“When you come to Black Family Channel—when we are fully realized, in terms of the programming that is in development—there will be no mistaking what channel you’re watching,” says Rick Newberger, president/CEO of Black Family Channel since August 2004. Newberger has been instrumental in the launch of cable networks Sci Fi and Golf Channel as managing director of advisory firm Vanguard Media Corp. “This is programming you will not see anywhere else, which is the objective.”

Still, the network since its re-launch has again slipped under the radar. Distribution to 16 million households makes it only a small fraction the size of BET and two-thirds the size of TV One. However, it is in the 25 largest African-American markets.

Also, Black Family Channel does not yet have Nielsen ratings, which has made it tough to secure advertising, although it already has a handful of top-tier brands like General Motors and McDonald’s.


But Newberger vows this is going to be a year of dramatic change for the network.

“We have licenses with all the major cable MSOs, and we expect to have some major breakthroughs in distribution over the course of this year, which I cannot speak about,” he says. “Being primarily a digital network, we ride the fortunes of the digital rollout. On Feb. 17, 2009, when the world is no longer analog, I would expect that we’ll automatically gain a bigger presence.”

Newberger is also optimistic that more advertisers will take notice.

“We have partnered with the largest African-American-owned radio network, American Urban Radio Networks,” he says. “Part of that strategic arrangement involves using their sales force to create promotions and advertising arrangements that include both radio and television. That is now under way, and it’s definitely extending our voice, reach and persuasiveness with advertisers.”