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Black News Channel wants to give a voice to an underserved audience

A woman and three men at a TV news desk.
BNC hosts Aisha Mills, left, and Del Walters, BNC President and CEO Princell Hair and “BNC Prime” host Charles Blow on set during the channel’s election coverage.
(Black News Channel)

Like the other cable news networks, Black News Channel reported on Gabby Petito, the 22-year-old woman who went missing in September and was found dead later that month.

But the reporting was supplemented with discussions about the obsessive coverage that surrounded the white blond Petito’s story and how missing women of color are largely ignored by the media. BNC regularly reports on missing Black women and devotes a lengthy segment to their plight each week on its legal program “Making the Case,” hosted by attorney and former judge Yodit Tewolde.

For the record:

1:28 p.m. Nov. 18, 2021An earlier version of this article said that Gabby Petito went missing in September and was found dead the following month. Petito’s remains were found in late September.

While CNN, MSNBC and Fox News have focused on the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the white teenager accused of killing two people during a 2020 civil disturbance in Kenosha, Wis., BNC has presented gavel-to-gavel coverage from the Brunswick, Ga., courtroom where three white men are accused of chasing and killing Ahmaud Arbery, a young unarmed Black man, after spotting him running in their neighborhood.

The nascent Tallahassee, Fla.-based channel is the only full-time national TV news channel dedicated to serving Black viewers. BNC is available in more than 50 million pay TV homes, up from 2.5 million when it launched in February 2020, and is on most major carriers including DirecTV, Xfinity, Spectrum and Cox. Next year BNC also will offer its programming as a direct-to-consumer online subscription service.

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BNC is attempting to make inroads as cable TV news audiences are shrinking and technology has lowered the barrier of entry for video news start-ups, such as the Black Star Network, a streaming channel launched last month by veteran journalist and commentator Roland Martin.

Launching a 24/7 news channel is daunting. The Qatar-based Al Jazeera tried a U.S. version of its channel but pulled the plug after three years. Nexstar Media Group launched NewsNation in September 2020 and has struggled to find an audience.

BNC sees an opening, however, as a recent study by Nielsen shows 58% of Black audiences say they do not see enough representation of themselves on TV, despite their value to advertisers. Black audiences had buying power of $1.57 trillion in 2020, according to the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth.

BNC was co-founded by former Oklahoma Republican congressman J.C. Watts and broadcast executive Bob Brillante and launched with the backing of Shad Khan, owner of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. Khan holds a majority stake in BNC through a $50 million investment.

Over the past year, BNC has undergone a makeover led by Princell Hair, who was the first Black executive to lead CNN’s U.S. operations. He joined in July 2020, replacing Brillante as chief executive.

The channel, which started with 55 employees, delayed its launch several times. Hair built the staff up to 350 people and developed more personality-driven programs, which tend to draw the largest audiences for cable news networks.

A Black female TV show host on set.
Yodit Tewolde puts a spotlight on missing women of color each week on her BNC legal program “Making the Case.”
(BNC)

While BNC advocates for Black people and causes, Hair said he is not out to create a partisan political channel.

“The mainstream networks have always looked at the Black audience as a monolithic audience,” Hair said. “A majority of Black Americans go to church every Sunday. Many of them have very conservative values. Our goal is to present as many voices as we can and allow the audience to make up their minds.”

BNC has confronted some challenges. The company is facing a gender discrimination suit filed in August from a group of female employees who say they were being paid less than their male counterparts and operated in a “hostile work environment” where they were told they were “insufficiently feminine.”

A BNC representative said the claims were investigated by an outside law firm and the company believes they are baseless.

Hair has bolstered BNC’s talent roster, signing veteran hosts such as Sharon Reed, an outspoken local news anchor in Atlanta; and the Los Angeles-based Mike Hill, who joined from Fox Sports to helm “Start Your Day,” a breezy yet substantive morning show.

Hair also landed as prime-time hosts author and New York Times columnist Charles Blow and Marc Lamont Hill, a Temple University professor who learned TV by being a liberal foil for conservative stalwart Bill O’Reilly on Fox News.

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In September, Hair brought on Aisha Mills, a Democratic political strategist whose pushback at conservative commentator Eric Bolling during a BBC segment last year led him to storm out of his camera shot.

Established TV news organizations have made an effort to improve diversity, especially after the 2020 police murder of George Floyd heightened the discussion of long-standing issues in the Black community such as social justice, law enforcement and racism. But that doesn’t mean issues facing the Black community are always addressed.

“It’s deceptive because you see there are a lot of people on the air who are African American,” said media strategist and political commentator Lauren Victoria Burke. “The problem is there are a lot of conversations that are not happening on those channels that are happening on BNC and '#RolandMartinUnfiltered’ on a deeper level.”

BNC also has created new opportunities for experts such as Nayyera Haq, a former national security advisor in the Obama administration, who joined BNC as chief foreign affairs correspondent and co-anchor of “The World Tonight” with Kelly Wright. A Pakistani American, Haq recalls asking a producer on one network where she was often booked as a guest why she was never invited on its morning program.

“The producer said, ‘Yeah, probably because you don’t look like a national security expert,’” Haq said. “And to have that said so casually as if it was understood. I said, ‘Hmm, noted.’ Asian women and women of color know we have to navigate this.”

When BNC was first announced in 2019, progressive members of the Black community were skeptical due to the involvement of Watts, among the nation’s most prominent Black conservatives. Watts said early on that he planned to do a talk show on the channel with right-wing radio host Larry Elder, who this year became a GOP candidate for California governor.

The program with Elder never happened and Watts has not been involved with the editorial product, said Hair, who oversees the news content.

“People were raising their eyebrow about how this was going to play out because J.C. Watts was involved,” Mills said. “But I have never seen the man. Haven’t heard from him.”

BNC’s most prominent hosts have progressive bona fides. When they are critical of President Biden, it’s almost always for not delivering on his campaign promises to the Black community.

Hair wants the network to highlight achievements as well as the challenges facing BNC’s target audience. “We feature Black and brown people doing things in their community that you won’t necessarily see on the mainstream networks,” he said.

In a recent interview, the Pakistan-born Khan said he generally finds cable news too polarizing. He also said he had no desire to become a media mogul. But, as the first nonwhite owner of an NFL franchise, he believes in BNC’s concept.

“This is something important that really needs to be done,” said Khan, who is looking for a strategic partner to help fund the channel’s expansion while maintaining its identity.

“We have to maintain some level of independence,” Hair said. “The most important currency to the Black audience is authenticity.”

BNC is off to a slow start in the ratings, with Nielsen data showing an average audience of 3,000 viewers in prime time last month. The young channel has just launched its first advertising campaign.

Martin, who has run several Black-owned newspapers and anchored a nightly newscast on the cable channel TV One, said BNC faces hurdles as traditional TV viewing declines.

It’s why he chose to go the digital route when he launched his live daily news program "#RolandMartinUnfiltered,” which he said was profitable after its first year. Martin will add eight more programs to his current daily show on his Black Star Network streaming channel in 2022.

The “CBS This Morning Saturday” host is bringing a lifetime of experience to the network’s George Floyd coverage.

“We’re far more nimble and we can contain cost,” Martin said. “You can grow a lot faster in the digital space. In the linear space you are compared to every other cable network.”

BNC executives say they are mindful of the shift to digital platforms. The network already has a free streaming channel, BNC GO. It also has done outreach to journalism programs at historically black colleges and universities, offering internships and raising awareness of BNC among younger consumers who tend to watch online.

Martin also said Black media ownership matters to his audience. “One of my fears I’ve always had is that 50 years from now African Americans will be asking someone else to tell their stories,” he said.

While BNC is not Black-owned, Hair believes the network’s commitment to the Black community will be apparent to viewers.

“Ownership is meaningful, and Shad Khan is a person of color who understands the experience and challenges that minorities face in the U.S. and around the world,” Hair said. “His belief in our mission and support has allowed us to hire more than 250 Black journalists and production personnel over the last year, which I’m confident stands as an all-time high for any network.”


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