New Channel to Compete With BET

Washington Post

The nation's biggest cable television operator and the largest African American-owned media company are launching a cable channel to rival Black Entertainment Television, which for 20 years has held a near-monopoly on programming aimed exclusively at a black audience.

Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp. and Radio One Inc. of Lanham, Md., which owns 65 urban music stations, are to officially announce their plans today for a 24-hour news and entertainment network targeting African American adults.

The announcement of the Comcast and Radio One cable channel, to be based in the Washington area, could be the opening volley of a media war.

The network will compete squarely with BET, which has 60 million subscribers and has been the nation's leading channel aimed at African American viewers since it was founded two decades ago by Robert L. Johnson.

Ever since Johnson sold his network to New York media company Viacom Inc. in 2000 for $3 billion, BET has been criticized by some viewers and media watchers inside and outside the black community for programming they say is tilted toward syndicated repeats and music videos. The criticism escalated last month after BET announced, in a cost-cutting move, that it was ending news programming.

For Radio One, which founder Catherine Hughes began out of a trailer in 1980, the new channel is an opportunity to target an underserved and increasingly affluent black television audience and to diversify its growing radio business into television, which commands higher advertising rates than radio.

The new network also would continue the evolution of Comcast from pure cable TV operator to national media company. Comcast has had success with channels such as E! Entertainment Television, Style and shopping network QVC. The inclusion of an African American-targeted network in the Comcast channel lineup also could help the company assuage concerns about consolidation in the cable industry after its purchase of AT&T; Corp.'s cable systems last year.

Alfred C. Liggins III, chief executive of Radio One and the founder's son, is to be chairman of the yet-unnamed network, which executives expect to launch by the middle of the year.

Liggins said he had been planning for four years to expand into television but had been unable to find a partner until he worked out the deal with Comcast. Under the terms, officials said, Radio One would put in $70 million and provide radio advertising time in markets where Comcast launches the network. Comcast would put up $60 million and offer the network to its subscribers. Comcast and Radio One each would own 38.5% of the network. Other investors haven't been announced because those deals have not been made final.

"This is a successful partner that knows this target audience extremely well, which should bode well," said Brian Roberts, Comcast's chief executive.

Liggins said he planned to include a mix of original and syndicated news, entertainment, opinion and sports shows featuring African American newscasters, actors and hosts.

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