Four execs to launch black news channel

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Viacom competitor vows to be `the place' for urban community

February 12, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

They are an eclectic bunch, these black executives who want to muscle their way into the world of television news: a flamboyant trial lawyer. A heavyweight champion. A home run hitter. A former child singing sensation.

They are the chief backers of a 4-year-old channel called the Major Broadcasting Cable Network, available in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, that is geared toward black viewers. And now the group - Willie E. Gary, Evander Holyfield, Cecil Fielder and Marlon Jackson - is launching a new 24-hour cable news station that is to focus on the interests of African-Americans.

The venture will rely upon the technology and studios of its minority partner, the regional cable outlet Florida's News Channel to produce and broadcast its programming, which is to be available by the end of the year.

"It's going to be educational, informative, entertaining," says Gary, MBCN's chairman and CEO, who made a fortune as a lawyer in class-action lawsuits. "It'll be the place to go for the urban community."

MBCN's biggest competitor is the huge media conglomerate Viacom, which owns both cable channel BET and UPN. The latter, a mini-network, appeals to African-Americans with sitcoms featuring younger black actors. But it offers no news. And since its purchase by Viacom in 2000, BET has retreated from news, cutting back its news offerings to a single program.

Prince George's County-based broadcaster Radio One and cable provider giant Comcast this winter promised to create a joint venture to compete with BET. MBCN clearly has its work cut out.

"I haven't heard of these people," says Mark Fratrik, vice president for BIA Financial Network Inc., who analyzes trends in broadcast media. "It raises the issue about whether there's really a market out there for both Radio One and their [channel]."

But Fratrik said the constant thirst for more channels in the satellite and cable works did provide MBCN's owners with a plausible opportunity to succeed.

Travis Mitchell, Major Broadcasting Cable's executive vice president for network operations, says the station would offer regular news roundups every half-hour or hour. Former CNN correspondent Lori Metoyer and former CNN Headline News anchor Gordon Graham will be joining the station, he says. But the new station, called "MBCN News - the Urban Voice," would also create new talk shows, "from the left and the right," Mitchell says. It would draw upon foreign news outlets for relevant coverage abroad.

And the station would develop its own feature packages based on stories that crop up in community and African-American newspapers to be told in a style reminiscent of NBC's newsmagazine Dateline, he says. "Some folks say, `How can you inform and inspire? Is that being objective?'" Mitchell says. "Just because some of the news that happens is good news doesn't mean that's not being objective. Because of the impact of crime on the urban community, we know that crime is going to lead the news a lot. You have to inform the community so you know the things that are happening."

(Baltimore nostalgia buffs may remember Mitchell as a leader of student protests at Morgan State University in the early 1990s; he helped to shut down the campus and he demanded more state funds for Morgan during talks with then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer.)

Atlanta-based Major Broadcasting Cable grew out of a black-oriented religious channel heavy on sermons and gospel music that was created by Alvin James and Marlon Jackson, best known from his singing with the Jackson Five. Gary was brought into the fold to expand its reach. The station now offers extensive sports programs involving historically black colleges and universities, along with religious programs and other syndicated fare, such as black-themed sitcoms, dramas and movies. It is available in 24 million homes in 48 states. But its ratings are not large, and it is not believed to be turning a profit.

Officials at MBCN say, however, that its support is growing strongly as it is providing a wholesome destination for black families and other Americans to watch television. The channel's original programs play to the strengths - and vanity - of its founders, with such specials as The Jacksons, America's First Family of Music and a talk show called Insights with Willie Gary.

In predicting their own success, Gary and Mitchell point to the popularity of several broadcast and cable outlets that cater to Latino tastes, such as Univision and Telemundo. CNN, Discovery, ESPN, HBO, MTV and even Playboy are among the mainstream media and entertainment outlets that maintain Spanish-language channels. Blacks watch television at higher levels than the population at large, Gary says, arguing their appetite for news should make the new channel a hit.

"I like being told you can't do it, because I consider myself an odds-buster," Gary says.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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