TVN Focus | The Time Has Come For Black News Channel
With their subscriber rolls shrinking, cable and satellite operators are not much interested is picking up new basic cable networks, especially ones that expect carriage fees.
But that isn’t fazing former cable lobbyist and regional cable network executive Bob Brillante and former football star and Oklahoma congressman J.C. Watts in the least.
The partners are forging ahead with plans for a 24/7, ad-supported news network for African-Americans.
If all goes well, Black News Channel, many years in the making, will debut in at least 33 million MVPD homes on Nov. 15, hoping to attract black viewers and steal ratings points from CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and others.
The country’s 38 million African-Americans deserve and want a news channel that speaks to them and goes beyond breaking news, says Watts who is the active chairman of the venture. (He spent last week traveling the country, trying to lock down advertising and distribution deals.)
“You rarely hear CNN or Fox or MSNBC or any other network channel talking about HBCUs, talking about wellness in the African-American community. You don’t ever hear them talking about sickle cell. You don’t hear them talking about African-American culture.”
Brillante, who serves as president, says his experiences in news since the late 1990s have convinced him that African-Americans are deeply interested in a news network of their own. “And the demand is stronger today obviously because of the hyper-focus on race and the role it is playing in politics and throughout society.”
From all accounts, the network is a major undertaking with a $26 million production and operations center in Tallahassee, Fla., and, at launch, bureaus in several other markets including Atlanta, Washington and New York. Brillante says he expects to have nearly 100 employees on board at launch.
Among the key executives are Jim Zerwekh, COO; Frank Watson, VP-GM; Gary Wordlaw, VP of news and programming; Michael Anapolsky, VP of advertising sales; Kenny Elcock, director of engineering and operations; and Tommy Ross, director of communications. They and others are briefly profiled on the BNC website.
Brillante and Watts have their own money in the venture, and, according to Watts, there are eight to 10 other investors. Their names will be revealed closer to the launch day, he says.
The investors are stepping up in a big way, Brillante says, providing cash to cover capital expenses, pre-launch working capital and first-year operating expenses. In other words, the network could go for a year without revenue. Of course, that is not the plan.
Smoke And Fire
On the day in 1980 when CNN launched, network President Reese Schonfeld praised staffers for “selling smoke while building the fire,” and that is what Watts, Brillante and their expanding cast of executives have been doing — lining up advertising and MVPD distribution as they wrestle with putting a network on the air.
According to Brillante, deals with Charter and Dish account for most of the 33 million homes BNC will have at launch. The Charter deal was crucial, he says. Due in large part to its 2016 merger with Time Warner Cable, it reaches 45% of African-American homes, he says.
Additional carriage agreements are in the works with DirecTV and, to a limited extent, with Comcast, Brillante says. The network is eager to reach Comcast’s many African-American subscribers in markets like Philadelphia, Atlanta, Baltimore, Washington, Miami and Jacksonville. The goal is to have 45 million homes by the end of the year.
Just like other major cable nets, Brillante expects to receive carriage fees for the service, although not right away. Rather than give up equity and provide launch support, BNC has agreed to forgo fees for “a certain period,” he says. After that, “the license fees kick in … with a multiyear contract.”
While it awaits those fees, BNC’s sole source of revenue will be advertising.
“We are pleased to say that the network has been extremely well received by the advertising community,” Brillante says. “We believe that we will actually turn the corner in terms of generating a profit in the first year of operations and that is just solely based on the advertising contracts signed to date.”
The appeal of the BNC audience is its uniqueness, says ad sales chief Anapolsky. “There is no other place in TV where you will be able to get African-American viewers engaged in news content.”
Neither Brillante nor Anapolsky would name any of the charter advertisers. But like the outside investors, they say, they will be identified prior to launch.
Brilliante is a self-described “nuts-and-bolts TV guy,” by which he means he knows how to build, run and distribute a cable network.
The son of cable pioneer Orlando Brillante, he was a lobbyist for the Florida Cable Telecommunications Association and was the founder of two regional networks in the 1990s, the Sunshine Network (now Fox Sun Sports) and the Florida News Channel.
Noting the high black viewership of FNC, he partnered with the MBC Network, an entertainment channel aimed at African-Americans, to produce a nightly newscast for the channel that debuted in 2003. The newscast was anchored by Gordon Graham and others.
The newscast was supposed to be the first step toward a full-fledged black news channel, but the supporting MBC Network struggled. It changed its name to the Black Family Channel and then went dark, selling its distribution to the Gospel Music Channel (now UP TV) in 2007.
Brillante was undeterred. The 18 months that MBC News was on the air confirmed his belief in the viability of black news.
“We launched the service in about eight million homes across the U.S. just to test to see if there was a real appetite nationally for culturally specific news to the African-American community and the response was overwhelming” he says.
So encouraged, Brillante kept his dream of a black news channel alive and eventually found a man who shared it.
Watts was a stand-out quarterback at the University of Oklahoma, leading the team to consecutive Orange Bowl victories and earning a degree in journalism (1981).
He leveraged the football fame into a political career as a Republican, first in Oklahoma and then in the U.S. House of Representatives. He served there between 1995 and 2003, sticking closely to the party line.
Despite considerable popularity and a rising national profile, he retired from the House in 2003 to pursue other interests. He set up a lobbying shop in Washington and plunged into business as a John Deere dealer.
He also took seats on a number of corporate boards, including at one time Clear Channel Communications (now iHeartMedia). He currently sits on the Dillard’s Inc. board.
Watts says that he first got to thinking about African-Americans as a distinct TV audience while in Congress working on communications for the Republican Party in the late 1990s. He came upon two lists. One showed the top 10 TV shows in white homes; the other, the top 10 shows in black homes. Only one show made both lists, St. Elsewhere, and he thinks that was only because one of its stars was Denzel Washington.
And then he saw the dearth of black-oriented news on TV. “You have channels in the Hispanic community, for women, for gay, for straights, for religion, I mean everything under the sun, but you have nothing in the TV Guide concerning African-American news.”
So, after he and Brillante met in 2004, they decided to work together in putting a network together.
In April 2008, they thought they were set. They announced they would launch the Black Television News Channel the following year, having secured a big distribution deal with Comcast. The press release still resides on the BNC website.
But it never happened. Brillante says it was because of the unexpected death of one of the lead investors. Watts adds that it did not help that the nation was falling into the Great Recession at the time. “The markets went south. I mean that that was not a good time for anyone.”
It was a setback, but far from a fatal one, Watts says. He and Brillante simply resumed their search for investors, distributors and advertisers. With a bow to digital, they changed the name from the Black Television News Channel to the platform-agnostic Black News Channel. Plans call for a companion pay OTT channel.
“We stayed with it and kept plugging and chipping away at it and just never took no for an answer,” says Watts. “And here we are now, building facilities and equipping them and ordering furniture and hiring personnel and launching on Nov. 15.”
The History Problem
Despite the certainty of Brillante and Watts, there is little real-world evidence of great demand for a 24/7 black news channel — or even for a black daily newscast — other than Brillante’s experience with MBC News.
In fact, history suggests that black audiences may be indifferent to black news.
Urban One’s TV One cable network offered a daily morning news show hosted by one-time CNN anchor Roland Martin. News Now One debuted in 2013 and ran for four years before the network gave it the ax, citing low viewership.
In 2005, BET canceled an 11 p.m. Nightly News after a four-year run. With plenty of news elsewhere on cable and the internet, then-President Debra Lee explained at the time, “our audience doesn’t want to wait until 11 p.m. to find out what the news is.”
More recently, the diginet Soul of the South (soon to be rebranded Slang TV) tried a daily newscast when it launched in 2013, but soon abandoned it.
But Doug McHenry, president of Soul of the South, says he wouldn’t put too much weight on the failure. The diginet model, which relies solely on advertising, cannot generate enough revenue to support original, live news production.
But the basic cable model can, if the network can get wide enough distribution and, say, six or seven cents per sub per home, he says.
What’s more, he adds, the cost of producing news keeps coming down. “News was extremely expensive to do,” he says. “With today’s technology, where you don’t have to buy a big truck and all that kind of stuff, news is easier to do on a cost basis.”
And as far as McHenry is concerned, BNC has something else going for it that none of the earlier ventures did — Watts. “He has a demonstrated a real commitment to get this channel on the air. He was been working on it for over 10 years. He is persistent and he really believes there is a need in the marketplace for it.”
The Content Man And His Plan
In his search for executives, Watts says he asked trusted black journalists whom he should hire to head news and programming. “Four of the first five people said: ‘’Your only choice is Gary Wordlaw.’ ”
Wordlaw, who joined the network early this year, is a well-traveled broadcaster who has managed TV stations and newsrooms in markets large and small. During the 1990s, he was news director at WJLA Washington. Most recently, he headed news at Nexstar’s NBC-Fox duopoly in Baton Rogue, La.
“I like to say that I have interviewed for this job for the past 50 years having worked in many markets from photographer to the front office,” he says. “What I have noticed is, in most of the situations, the overall context of news as it relates to the African-American community largely is negative.
“I am not here to cast stones. It is what it is. Our news will differ. We will tell news from the inside out, a sort of viewer-perspective journalism, and the perspective will be that of an African-American person.”
Take Baltimore, which has been the object of a lot of negative publicity lately, he says. “We are going to talk to the people in the street about their city and find out from them why they choose to live there, even in West Baltimore. I know the history of the drug problems and so forth. Has anybody ever stopped to think about who in that community is working to make it better? Well, let’s profile those people and not the drug dealers.”
Wordlaw also cites the story Jayden Jefferson, the 11-year-old who interviewed presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren in Toledo, Ohio, prior to the last Democratic debate and wound up being interviewed on CNN about his big get.
“He demonstrates that not all 11-year-old black kids want to shoot baskets or run footballs. I want to expand that story, talk to his parents about how he is what he is, how did he get there and show that to black America as well as anybody else who wants to look at it.”
Under Wordlaw’s direction, the network’s program day is coming into focus.
According to Wordlaw, there will be 14 hours of live programming each weekday, including two news blocks — one in the morning (6-9 a.m. ET) and one in the evening (7-10 p.m.) As of this writing, Wordlaw has not found his “signature anchor,” but he attended the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Miami last week in search of one.
In between the news will be a mix of political talk and lifestyle. Plans call for programs for young women (Being a Woman) and older women (Sister to Sister). “As we know, females control the sets and, if I can create enough of a buzz among those two groups of women, we are going to get viewers,” Wordlaw says.
And just in case the men can get at the remote, the network will have a show on men’s health hosted by Mark McEwen, the well-known former meteorologist, reporter and anchor on CBS This Morning.
Del Walters, whose years as a reporter and anchor at WJLA partially overlapped with Wordlaw’s there, “will have a morning talk about what is happening in the nation’s capital as it relates to us,” Wordlaw says.
Veteran network TV newsman Byron Pitts (ABC News and CBS News) has also been bought in as senior national correspondent.
So far, the only political talker BNC has lined up is Larry Elder, a prominent black radio and TV commentator with strong conservative views. He’s a frequent defender of President Trump. Of late, he has been challenging the idea that white nationalism is on the rise or is anywhere near the menace that Democrats are saying it is.
“Larry Elder is Larry Elder,” Wordlaw says. “He is a very conservative lightning rod, but … there is a lightning rod who can counterbalance his opinions.”
Wordlaw says he has spoken to “probably 50 people” about becoming the counterbalance. “In the black community, we have very conservative black people. We have very liberal black people. But we tend only to put one side on television. This network is going to seek to put all sides on TV.”
The network is committed to civil discourse, Wordlaw adds. “I don’t want to balance it with someone who is going to be a yeller or screamer. I am looking for somebody who can give rational thought to it.”
In addition to his duties as chairman of the network, Watts will also host a show called My America, and, unlike what his background would suggest, it will be non-political, Wordlaw says. Watts will travel the country, showcasing black entrepreneurs and other “high achievers.”
The network’s offices and main studio will be in Tallahassee, but much of the news — and some of the news management — will come from bureaus in other cities. At the start, Wordlaw says, there will be full-blown bureaus in Washington, New York, Atlanta and New Orleans. Next year, he says, he would like add bureaus in Los Angeles and Chicago.
The Atlanta bureau will have the primary assignment desk and should be the source of a lot of the news. Because of its large black population, Atlanta is the nation’s “African-American nerve center,” he says. “New Orleans would be the cultural entertainment center of America for black folks.”
In addition, he says, he is forging “media partnerships” that will give the network a presence in Orlando, Houston, Detroit, Jacksonville, San Antonio, Dallas and Roanoke, Va. “Ultimately the goal is to have a bureau in every major city where there is a large African-American audience,” he says.
For some of its general news, BNC will turn to the Associated Press and CNN with its news-sharing partnership with TV stations, Wordlaw says.
Wordlaw has at least one other resource he intends to tap — historically black colleges and universities. “There are a little over 100 of those universities, 60 of them have journalism departments,” Wordlaw says. “We are not going to be able to employ every kid who graduates, but we are going to have bureaus — college bureaus — at selected universities around the country.
“Those kids will get an opportunity in a program that I am going to create specially for them to exhibit their wares so that when they are ready to step out of school, they already have had some practical experience.”
Despite the spotty history of black news and the disruption that basic cable is undergoing, it is difficult to find naysayers.
Tom Jacobs, a veteran TV news manager who worked on MBC News and the Soul of the South’s newscasts, says that he can’t calculate the odds of BNC’s succeeding without knowing its costs and its prospects for growing distribution and getting sub fees.
In general, he says, 24/7 news is a “pretty heavy lift.” On the other hand, he adds, “there is room for balanced news reflective of black and multicultural communities.”
RTDNA President Dan Shelley says the network has a “legitimate chance,” given the editorial leadership of Wordlaw and what he sees as renewed interest among advertisers in targeting African-Americans.
Prior to 2016 election, he noticed that such targeting was diminishing. But after the presidential campaign and the election, it has made a comeback, possibly due to the increasingly divisive racial rhetoric, police shootings and resulting civil discord.
In any event, as the head of an organization that promotes and defends TV news, Shelley says he is delighted to see newcomers. “The more and varied outlests with responsible news programming the better. We wish them well.”