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NewsTECHForum | Wordlaw: ‘Why Not Us And Why Not Now?’

Gary Wordlaw, the local TV news veteran who has been tapped to oversee all content for the new Black News Channel, says the new service will strive to “just tell the truth, report the facts of the story.” (Photo: Wendy Moger-Bross)

NEW YORK — The Black News Channel, which will launch in at least 33 million cable homes on Jan. 6, 2020, will play its politics right down the middle, promises Gary Wordlaw, the local TV news veteran who has been tapped to oversee all content for the network as VP of news and programming.

“I think there are those who think because some of the folks involved in the network are Republicans we are going to be a conservative mouthpiece-type news organization,” he said during an on-stage interview with this writer at TVNewsCheck’s NewsTECHForum here yesterday. “It’s not true.”

“Or, because we are African American, we are going to be perceived as extremely liberal. Not true.

“I am a news guy. I’ve been a news guy all my life. My mission is help influence our team of journalists to just tell the truth, report the facts of the story.”

The network will have commentary, but it will not have “opinion-hosts” like those that populate MSNBC, CNN and Fox News, he said. “I don’t need the pundits, I don’t need the yelling and screaming. People just want the news, for god’s sake. Just let me hear what’s going on and I can talk to my wife and kids around the table to decide how I feel about it.”

However, he did allow that there will be one daily show each day, DC Today, which will discuss national events largely with heavy input from the Congressional Black Caucus, a Democratic and liberal group.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

Wordlaw is well-known in TV news circles. His career started in Chattanooga, Tenn., 50 years ago when he was 16 and has included successful stops as a news director in Baltimore (WMAR) and Washington (WJLA).

One of the network’s co-founders is J.C. Watts, who leveraged his fame as a star quarterback at the University of Oklahoma to become a Republican congressman from the state. The other co-founder is long-time cable executive Bob Brillante. The network’s principal backer is Shad Khan, a Pakastani-American billionaire who made his fortune selling bumpers to major auto makers.

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Watts will have a show on the network, My America, but it will eschew politics, Wordlaw said. He will travel around the country “profiling some of the interesting things that black folks do and folks may not be aware of.”

But while the network will endeavor to be politically balanced, it will not be culturally or ethically so. In fact, that is the whole point of the network.

“I like to tell people this network is going to be unapologetically black,” Wordlaw said. “We are going to take stories that some folks won’t do, can’t do or — because of the audience — choose not to do.”

Among the goals is to balance negative stories involving African Americans that pervade crime-obsessed TV stations with the many positive ones, he said. “We are as diverse as any other people.”

He cited the recent decision of the New York City Ballet to cast an 11-year-old black girl for a key role in this year’s production of The Nutcracker. “That’s a significant story in the American-American community.”

Then, there is a case of the 11-year-old sophomore at Southern University, a historically black school, he added. “He doesn’t dribble basketballs, he doesn’t chase footballs. He is just brilliant.”

The network is, above all, a news channel, but it will have some softer fare in daytime. In addition to Watts’s show, there will be lifestyle shows on women’s issues and men’s health and a program featuring African-American restaurants and cultural activities around the country.

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Leading into the three-hour evening news block at 7 p.m. will be what Wordlaw describes as a “Merv Griffin-esque talk show.” Hosting will be former Fox News Channel anchor Kelly Wright.

The centerpiece of the network will be a $26 million studio and operations center in Tallahassee, Fla., although the assignment desk will be in Atlanta, the No. 1 African-American TV market.

The Atlanta bureau will also have a back-up studio. Tallahassee “tends to get a few storms,” Wordlaw said. “I can move my entire operation to Atlanta in a heartbeat and broadcast everything out of there without losing a show.”

There will be other bureaus in New York, Washington, New Orleans, Chicago and Los Angeles.

But Wordlaw is making sure that the network will have some kind of presence wherever news happens. He said that he has a news-sharing arrangement with Graham Media, which puts the network into Detroit, Houston, San Antonio, Jacksonville, Orlando and Norfolk, Va.

Wordlaw said he hopes to put similar deals in place with other stations or station groups.

In addition, a deal with VideoLink will allow the network to put a stringer on the air in some 400 locations at a moment’s notice, Wordlaw said.

Another source of news will be the nation’s 223 black-owned newspapers. The network has a deal with every one of them, under which they will supply stories and reporters to appear on air. “We are going to be able to get grassroot materials from them.”

Wordlaw already has a plan to put his newsgathering operation to work in covering next year’s elections. Under the banner “My Vote: 2020,” it will not attempt to cover every race or every market, he said. Rather, he said, it will target key black districts that could swing elections based on what the people see as the issues and not the rhetoric from the candidates.

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In its early months, the network will have between 70 and 100 employees. Most, like Wordlaw himself, will be based in Tallahassee. The Washington and Atlanta bureaus will have 8-10 people.

Wordlaw ran down the list of technology suppliers: Vizrt (graphics), Sony (switcher), Bitcentral (integration of linear and digital), Devlin (sets) and Ross Video. Beck TV is handling the integration.

Distribution is key for any startup and, according to Wordlaw, the network continues to work hard to increase distribution beyond the announced 33 million cable homes. Much of those additional eyeballs will likely come from deals with various pay and ad-supported streaming platforms like Sling TV and Fubo.

“It is our desire to have a lot of AVOD and SVOD services, and thanks to our good friends at Bitcentral and Fuel we will be able to populate them with a fairly small staff.”

The network expects to collect affiliate fees from all its distributors, but not initially. In the beginning, he said, the only source of revenue will be from advertising. As a news executive who respects the wall between news and sales, he said he doesn’t know how many charter advertisers the network has lined up, but he understands that it has enough commitments at this point to cover first-run operating costs.

Asked if he thought a black news network would further Balkanize news consumers and drive another wedge into the already sharply divided American society, Wordlaw said he wasn’t concerned about it.

“In my community, I might wager that it has always been about somebody else but us. So why not us and why not now?”

Watch the full video of the session here.


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