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Startup Preps Startup: MBC to Try News Net

Rushing in where Black Entertainment Television declines to tread, Major Broadcasting Corp. says it will launch an urban-skewed, 24-hour news network next January.

Already, observers are skeptical that MBC — which has struggled to gain distribution for its flagship family values-based entertainment channel — will succeed with a narrowly targeted news channel.

Atlanta-based MBC will team with Tallahassee, Fla.-based Florida's News Channel to create a network that reaches for 25-to 54-year-old African-Americans who aren't being served by the youth-targeted Black Entertainment Television.

BET recently decided to scale back its commitment to news and public-affairs programming.

Initially, MBC will incubate the new service with a one-hour block of news programming on its entertainment channel, beginning in April. The network would then roll out next January, according to Florida's News Channel managing partner Bob Brillante.

Florida's News Channel — which provides public-affairs programming for Florida-based regional sports service Sunshine Network, as well as sports-news programming for various regional sports networks around the country — will produce and distribute the MBC entry.

"With the ability to partner with [Florida's News Channel], we gain the infrastructure necessary to get into the homes," MBC chairman Willie Gary said. "It's a perfect situation and the wheels are in motion."

MBC will have complete control of editorial decision-making and news policies, said Brillante. The network will gather both domestic and international news through cooperative relationships with other organizations, although he would not disclose specific names.

"We're going to have to establish our own bureaus around the hot spots here and around the world," he said.

Two years in

Gary said MBC has been developing the concept of a news channel for more than two years. No cable channel offers the African-American community a voice for news and public-affairs programming that speaks to their concerns and needs, he claimed.

"It's a 24-hour news service with an urban touch. It's clearly never been done before, and it can do so much to empower our people, to educate our people and to inform them in a way that in the long run is going to help save African-American youths of America," Gary said.

Both Brillante and Gary declined comment on whether the network would ask for carriage fees, or how many subscribers it expects at launch.

Brillante said he believes it could gain analog distribution in urban markets, however.

"It will be a very attractive launch offer to operators," Brillante said. "As significant as this channel is — from a social and political standpoint, [with] the support that it has received from the news makers within the African-American community — I think it'll grow much faster than a typical new launch service."

The move is a bold endeavor for four-year-old MBC, which is currently in 10 million homes and passes 24 million households.

MBC — whose major investors include former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, ex-Major League Baseball star Cecil Fielder, cable veteran Alvin James and Jackson 5 member Marlon Jackson — has worked to gain distribution amidst a crowded network arena, though one in which only BET is up and running.

The network has not spent millions of dollars on high-profile programming to draw new viewers and advertisers, relying on low-cost original series and specials, and sports from historically black colleges and universities.

But at least one industry executive, who wished to remain anonymous, said the cost of developing a top-notch news operation — a business that typically produces programming that yields lower ratings than entertainment fare — makes the new channel a risky proposition.

"While public affairs is important, it's not always the most compelling programming you can watch, and it's expensive to produce on a 24-hour basis," said the source. "Add to that the fact that it's targeted to a niche audience, and it becomes a difficult sell."

Gary said MBC is investing "millions" in the news network, but would not provide an exact outlay.

Message needed

Independent producer Tom Jacobs also said MBC will need to define its message and editorial approach, as well as develop quality original programming that will draw viewers.

"It's easy to say that you're going to offer a news channel, but it's a complicated process," Jacobs said. "But there is a need in the marketplace for alternative views."

MBC's announcement comes on the heels of BET's decision two months ago to drop most of its public affairs and news programming in favor of investments in the development of more entertainment-based programming and acquired fare.

BET's decision to drop BET Tonight, Lead Story
and teen-targeted public affairs show Teen Summit
drew criticism. Network viewers and some African-American leaders complained that BET was eliminating the few shows on television that offered news analysis and informational programming related to the black audience.

At the time, BET COO Debra Lee said the network was losing $4 million a year on the shows. She said BET would continue to air its daily news program, BET Nightly News
— a joint production venture with CBS News — and would look to create news specials and town forums when appropriate issues present themselves.

Nevertheless, Brillante said the MBC news channel will fill a gap left by BET.

"BET is talking to a younger audience, which only creates a greater desire from the African-American community for this product, particularly the 25- to 54-year-old viewer that's not being served," Brillante said. "That will create a greater opportunity for our network to serve the older, more-educated and higher-income African-American viewer."

A BET spokesman said the network is "very pleased with our current approach to coverage and analysis of news from an African-American perspective, and our ratings indicate that this is something our viewers like seeing from BET. There is no shortage of news to be covered."

Primetime talk

MBC's service will feature a traditional news hour throughout the day, while its primetime block will offer public-affairs and news-analysis shows featuring "high-profile African-American newsmakers," according to Brillante.

The multi-billion dollar buying power of the African-American community — as well as the positive social implications of the operation — will make the service appealing both to Madison Avenue and MSOs, he added.

"When you look at the economic model in terms of what we provide to a cable operator, it's a very significant opportunity for operators to drive viewers to their channel lineup," he said. "We have a situation where we're creating a network that provides a social value and a platform for a debate between races which is desperately needed in this country."

The network is the second new African-American targeted service unveiled this year. Last month, Comcast Corp. and Radio One Inc. announced the formation of an entertainment-based network, also targeting the 25-to-54 demo.

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.