Robert L. Johnson, who founded Black Entertainment Television more than 30 years ago, is setting his sights on the Internet.
Last week, Bethesda-based RLJ Entertainment introduced two paid channels on YouTube as part of a pilot program on the popular video-sharing site.
The first channel, OnCue, offers movies, documentaries and other programming targeted to African American and urban audiences for $1.99 a month. The other, Acorn TV, specializes in British drama and mysteries for a monthly fee of $4.99.
“When I started BET, I had to go to every cable operator to convince them to carry our programming,” said Johnson, who founded RLJ Entertainment in October. “I don’t have to do that now. I just put it on the Internet and it goes to the world.”
YouTube currently has 54 paid channels, including the mixed martial arts channel UFC Select ($5.99 a month) and National Geographic Kids ($3.99 a month). Eventually the site will allow all users to create and operate paid channels, a company spokesman said.
Analysts say the popularity of shows such as Netflix’s “House of Cards” has ramped up demand for professionally produced programming on the Web. But the ubiquity of Internet videos can also make it difficult to stand out from the pack and spin a profit.
“It’s too early to tell whether [YouTube’s new programming] will be successful,” said Dan Rayburn, a digital media analyst for Frost & Sullivan, adding that channels with niche audiences may fare better than others. “YouTube gets a lot of eyeballs, but that may not necessarily be enough to drive an entirely new business.”
For District-based National Geographic, YouTube’s model has made it easier to reach young viewers who are not accustomed to waiting around for scheduled programming on television, said Adam Sutherland, senior vice president of corporate strategy and development for the company.
“This idea of getting what you want, when you want it, works well for kids,” Sutherland said. “Even when they’re at home, ‘appointment viewing’ is almost foreign to kids of a certain age.”
At RLJ Entertainment, Johnson said the shift to YouTube signals something else entirely: Freedom from network executives, movie studios and monied advertisers who may be quick to pull the plug on unconventional television shows and movies.
“All of these things have restricted the diversity of African American content,” Johnson said. “If you look at television today, it’s very hard to find a drama where African Americans are the lead characters and where the story is built around their existence and their lives.”
Johnson said the YouTube model also allows the company to distribute content through other outlets, including Amazon Prime, Netflix and Hulu. RLJ Entertainment plans to sell Blu-ray and DVD versions of its programming once it has aired on the OnCue channel.
“We do not have to be exclusive to YouTube,” Johnson said. “We can take our content to our own proprietary platform, as we have already, but also to other platforms as they evolve. We will be able to monetize everything we produce.”
Acorn TV, which was acquired by RLJ for $105 million last fall, says it hopes to reach younger audiences through YouTube. The company has offered British programming to American audiences for nearly 20 years, but executives say this is the first time full-fledged shows will be broadcast on YouTube.
“A lot of this content doesn’t have a good broadcast outlet in North America,” said Miguel Penella, chief executive of RLJ Entertainment. “We’re building a media company for distinct audiences.”
Beginning next year, OnCue will release at least two new movies or original series every month, Johnson said. RLJ Entertainment is currently in the process of pulling together $60 million in funding to finance new productions.
“I’m willing to bet there are 100 African-American producers walking around with scripts that they have pitched to the networks, that they have pitched to the studios and have been rejected,” Johnson said. “We’re going to change that. We’ve got a ready audience and we’ve got a great source of talent waiting to go to work.”