There have probably never been more than a few battles as epic as those waged by African-American newspapers for the hearts and minds of people of good will. Black owned radio — WDAS, WHAT and WURD — have played their part in this city in the effort to make the world a better place.And now J.C. Watts, the former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma, has announced that he will launch a 24-hour Black television network with the aim of providing 24-hour news aimed at an African-American audience.Watts says he wants to get beyond the coverage that he implies too often links Black faces to negative things such as crime and the mentality that “if it bleeds, it leads.”
Watts said the channel would launch in 2009.
Media observers say Watts faces many challenges in his effort to make the network “the single destination for reliable, credible, informational resources for the African-American community.”
“I’m not so sure that you see anything on CNN or Fox News that specifically targets the African-American community,” Watts told The New York Post.
Among the obstacles Watts will face include white backlash against a “serious” Black news program. He will also have to wrestle with how such an outlet will be financed given the reluctance to discuss race and class while selling cars, advertisements, branding big corporations and promoting an upcoming basketball game.
Big obstacles, but, then again, when it comes to succeeding against the odds, timing is everything.
“Eight months ago, who couldn’t have predicted that Barack Obama would end up the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party,” said Aziz Gueye Adetimirin, the publisher of The Network Journal, a New York-based business and finance magazine. “The American people are questioning everything. Not just political institutions, but the media as well. If Watts comes up with an approach that reforms the broadcast media, he might be able to pull it off.”
But if Watts decides to create an African-American news network that models itself after the white dominated shows with shouting talking heads locked in narrow debate, there may be no problems, said Joseph P. Blake, a longtime Philadelphia journalist and media observer.
He said the broadcast news media has done a “great disservice to the nation’s democratic project” by not providing citizens with the news and information they need to make informed decisions about their future.
“Newt Minow, the former FCC (Federal Communications Commission), was right,” Blake added. “Television is a vast wasteland. That wouldn’t matter so much if it didn’t do so much damage to the minds of both Blacks and whites.”
In announcing the launch of the Black Television News Channel, Watts cited the treatment of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama during the Rev. Jeremiah Wright media episode as an example of why such a network is needed.
“The critical thing is to allow the community to create a platform to be involved in the economic, social and political debates taking place across the country,” said Watts.
Already the network has agreements to be added to Comcast cable systems in Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Baltimore and Washington, and would be available nationwide on Dishnet.
According to recent U.S. census figures, nearly 81 percent of Detroit’s population is Black, while Baltimore is 64 percent, Atlanta is 61 percent, D.C. is 57 percent, Philly is 46 percent and Chicago is 37 percent. That means each city is a major potential market for the new channel and advertisers.
It is estimated that African Americans spend nearly $1 trillion annually, that’s more than the gross national product of each country in the world, except the 10 richest.
Over the past three decades, two channels, Black Entertainment Television and TV One have been launched with a targeted Black market. But both tilt heavily toward entertainment and steer clear of issues like those tackled in the past by African-American newspapers and radio stations.
When Robert L. Johnson launched BET in 1980, the African-American community was breathless. But soon many Blacks, especially those raised during the civil rights and Black power eras, began expressing anger and disappointment as BET’s program succumbed to the lure of free music videos supplied by billion-dollar record companies.
BET had a nightly newscast that was canceled years ago. Back then, its president and CEO, Debra Lee, said at the time: “With 24-hour news networks and everyone getting news off the Internet, our audience doesn’t want to wait until 11 p.m. to find out what the news is.”
BET was eventually sold to the media conglomerate Viacom and Johnson walked away from the deal $1.8 billion richer.
Then in January 2004, TV One began broadcasting on cable. It promised to serve “a broad range of lifestyle and entertainment-oriented original programming, classic series, movies, fashion and music designed to entertain,” and inform adult African-American viewers.
While BET rolled out slowly, TV One came out of the blocks well financed and with an impressive group of partners, including Radio One, the largest radio company that primarily targets African American and urban listeners; Comcast Corporation, the leading cable television company in the country; Syndicated Communications; and Pacesetter Capital Group.
Among Watts’ most immediate concerns is the $20 million he must raise to build studios in Washington as well as a “coast-to-coast high definition news gathering infrastructure.”
Watts, who grew up in tiny Eufaula, Okla., left the House of Representatives in 2003 and formed the J.C. Watts Co., a marketing and lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., and has been working on forming a news channel for several years.
Watts says he and two other investors are the major backers of the project.
Tom Dolan, a news industry-staffing expert, believes it will take Watts at least six months to staff a new channel, under the best circumstances.
“And that doesn’t include anchors and reporters who you may target,” he says. “Many times, they are still under contract with someone else.”
It is estimated that each hour of original programming costs about $7 million annually, once everything else is in place. Industry sources believe starting a cable news network would cost at least $100 million.
Tom Gilbert, executive director of Television Week in Los Angeles, thinks Watts’ timing might be right on target to crack “a really tough market.”
“I think it would be difficult to do with traditional cable carriage,” Gilbert said. “As the regular local stations go digital, they will need programming to fill their airways. That might be an easier way to get carriage for a startup network with a limited audience.”
The increasing desire to reach the African-American media market may also work in Watts’ favor.
The Nielsen Company reported earlier this year that in its first 12-month analysis of advertising spending on media outlets that reach African-American consumers, national cable TV reported the largest ad growth with 14.5 percent.
The Nielsen Company also reported that spending for the period Oct. 1, 2006, through Sept. 30, 2007, totaled $2.3 billion. The Nielsen African American ad spending analysis covers more than 22,000 national, regional and local advertisers, across more than 130 media vehicles.
Nielsen concluded that the growth in national cable was result of a number of factors including: Year over year growth for BET, the inclusion of TV One in the Nielsen Monitor-Plus service as of January 2007, as well as a number of high-profile TV programs such as “House of Payne” on TBS, “Being Bobby Brown” on Bravo, “Flavor of Love” on VH1, and “Making the Band” on MTV.
“People are hungry for serious news, especially African Americans,” said Adetimirin.
Perhaps no one described the urgent need better than the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. Said she: “We are a people in a quandary about the present. We are a people in search of our future. We are a people in search of a national community …”
Without a serious broadcast media, what the Rev. Martin Luther King called a “beloved community” will remain elusive.