TV One reaches for old favorites in effort to draw black audience

Channel's debut tomorrow to reach 2.2 million homes

January 18, 2004|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Johnathan A. Rodgers has been arriving at his Lanham office before dawn, eating one meal many days and fervently scrutinizing videotapes in between as he prepares to launch a new TV channel tomorrow that promises a new approach to black television.

He is leading TV One, a joint venture of Comcast Corp., the largest cable television provider in the nation, and Radio One Inc., the Lanham-based company that is the nation's largest radio broadcaster serving black audiences.

TV One's creators hope not only to influence the content of black television, but to tap the nearly $700 billion buying power of African-Americans. Blacks make up the heaviest television-watching audience in the country by demographics, according to Nielsen Media Research, but have been neglected by traditional broadcasters and proved difficult to reach by cable outlets beyond BET, Black Entertainment Television, industry watchers said.

"It's become a personal mission for me," Rodgers said. "This is beyond being a job, and has almost turned into a calling."

TV One launches just after midnight tonight, on the national holiday recognizing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. The channel aims to set itself apart from BET, which has dominated the black television market for nearly a quarter-century. Washington-based BET has been hugely successful, attracting nearly 75 million viewers, but has been criticized in recent years for a "booty-shaking" approach that favored music videos over public affairs programs.

The new outlet starts with a major advantage over most cable start-ups: Its relationship with Comcast almost guarantees distribution to many of the cable company's 22 million subscribers.

TV One will launch in 2.2 million Comcast homes from Detroit to Rehoboth Beach, Del., including most of the Baltimore-Washington region. Company executives project a profit within five years.

"There's no question they have a compelling business case," said Robert Stoddard, a spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, a cable trade group in Washington. "To a large extent, minority audiences really deserve more services to choose from."

But distribution doesn't guarantee success. Viewers' attention and advertiser dollars can be divided by hundreds of channels, not to mention other media.

"There's only so many hours in a day," said Tom Burnett, president of New York-based Merger Insight, a research firm. "It's hard to get the critical mass of attention to go to advertisers or cable operators and say, `Put us on your system.'"

The rise of television as a mass medium coincided with the rise of the civil rights movement in America, but the two major social transformations of the 20th century long struggled to mesh. Television executives were timid about showing black faces in key roles unless a program was specifically about race.

"From '60 to '68, one of the most popular shows ever, Andy Griffith, never breathed a word about race and what was really going on in the real Mayberry," said Robert Thompson, director for the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

Ironically, Thompson contends, Carroll O'Connor's racist character Archie Bunker on All in the Family in the 1970s helped pave the way for more black programming because the award-winning show prodded television executives and audiences to challenge conventional thinking.

But outside of occasional network successes such as The Cosby Show in the 1980s, ample accurate depictions of blacks on television have not emerged, many African-Americans contend. Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has criticized the networks in recent years for not including enough African-American characters in prominent prime-time roles.

Many blacks felt the networks have too quickly abandoned shows that portrayed blacks in professional roles, such as the medical drama City of Angels that CBS aired in 2000. TV One bought the rights to that show and plans to air it.

More serious approaches to existing cable models haven't always worked. The Oxygen Channel, for example, launched with fanfare four years ago as a more serious alternative to the Lifetime Channel for women. A former president of Nickelodeon created it. Oprah Winfrey provided financial backing. But its programming didn't live up to expectations and struggled to attract an audience and advertisers.

TV One must also break into markets not controlled by Comcast, such as New York, where Cox Communications Inc. and Time Warner Cable Inc. dominate.

Cognizant that new cable channels sometimes become mired in long lineups of channels, TV One seeks to air on basic cable, which typically has fewer options, more subscribers and is cheaper than digital cable. Cable operators may have to bump an existing channel to make room for TV One, and many will want to see how viewers react before doing that, analysts said.

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