Jessell | New Black News Channel CEO Princell Hair Faces COVID Headwinds
Talk about bad timing.
After a couple of missed launched dates, the Black News Channel finally made its debut on Feb. 10, just a month before great swatches of the U.S. economy began shutting down in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The network is delivering on its promise of providing news and lifestyle programming tailored for a Black audience, but the pandemic has complicated efforts to lock down the distribution and advertising it needs to make the business work.
“You wouldn’t draw up a play where you started a news network at the beginning of a pandemic,” says Princell Hair, the long-time TV news and sports executive who was called in a few weeks ago to take over from Bob Brillante as CEO of the fledgling network.
Brillante, along with former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts, founded BNC after a long struggle to find the backers, build the infrastructure and secure charter distribution and advertising deals.
Neither Hair nor Watts, who chairs the BNC board, would explain the front-office shakeup. “We needed someone to take us to the next level and fortunately he [Hair] was interested,” says Watts, noting that Brillante retains some equity in the venture.
Not only was Hair interested, he was up to speed.
After leaving his job as head of NBC Sports Boston late last year for what he expected would be a long sabbatical, he joined BNC in January as a consultant to help with the launch and the heavy political coverage through Super Tuesday (March 3). During this time, he worked closely with Gary Wordlaw, VP of news and programming, whom he describes as a “friend and colleague.”
“Look, this channel is important now because we really need to shine a light on the black community,” Hair says. “With the global pandemic, civil unrest, record unemployment and the question as to whether schools will open in the fall, Black people are feeling the effects of these global events really disproportionately.
“A decision was made to make a change at the CEO level, and I bring with me general management experience.”
That he does.
Hair started in local news and rose to VP of news for the CBS O&Os before joining CNN as an EVP and general manager for CNN-US. In 2008, he jumped over to sports with the Comcast regional sports networks. After Comcast’s takeover of NBCU, he was named EVP of news and talent for the NBC Sports Group in 2012 and later SVP and GM of NBC Sports Boston.
The newcomer has no specific criticism of BNC’s on-air product or none that he was willing to share. “The team has done a remarkable job with launching the network, launching the OTT platform and we are only going to get better,” he says. “We are still only six months old.”
In addition to regular newscasts, the network offers blocks of lifestyle programming.
He says the network has succeeded in giving the Black perspective, which is really a variety of perspectives. “You know, the Black community, it is not a one-size-fits-all kind of approach. I grew up in South Florida and Haitian-Americans have different priorities than Africans, who have different priorities than southern Blacks.
“So, our goal is to try and present all of their stories and all of those perspectives through our storytelling.”
Hair says that one of his priorities is to get BNC in front of as many people as it can, conceding that its stunted reach is “impacting our path to profitability.”
At launch, BNC said it reached 33 million homes, mostly through a deal with Charter. It now says that it is in 70 million, but it declines to break down how much of that reach is from cable and how much from the various OTT platforms. It also won’t say how much overlap there is between the cable and OTT homes.
The service is in some Comcast Xfinity systems, but subscribers have to use voice command to call it up from the digital depths. It has also been cloned as BNC 24/7 for OTT play on Roku, Select TV, Tiki Live and Xumo.
Watts said he expects BNC to be in an additional 25 million “linear” homes and an additional 50 million-60 million OTT homes by the middle of September.
Growing distribution is key to growing advertising, another of Hair’s priorities. “We had a really strong start with the advertising community. We had some really robust revenue generation and then COVID hit,” he says.
“We have definitely had some headwinds going into the second quarter and bleeding into the third quarter,” he says. “But we are hopeful that political advertising will continue to pick up for us. We have had some good buys from the campaigns.”
Hair has made no changes in the executive ranks since his arrival, but some may be coming. “I have to assess what is here and what is going well and what is not going well and then make changes as I see fit.
“I would anticipate that at some point … there is going to be some change,” he says. “I just can’t really tell you what that is at the moment. I just don’t know the business well enough. I don’t know the people well enough.”