A Florida lawyer and cable television entrepreneur plans to launch a 24-hour news-and-talk channel aimed at black viewers, hoping to grab the niche abandoned by Black Entertainment Television, which recently dropped most news programming.
Willie Gary is to announce today that he will add the news channel to his Atlanta-based Major Broadcasting Co. cable network later this year or early next year.
His plan highlights the increasing attention being paid to the black television audience, underscored by Viacom Inc.'s $3 billion purchase of BET in 2000. Although advertising dollars spent in 2001 dropped overall, ad money targeted at black audiences continues to increase. Last month, Lanham-based radio company Radio One Inc. announced a deal with Comcast Corp. to launch a cable entertainment channel later this year, aiming directly at the audience that BET has held almost exclusively.
Gary's news channel -- to be announced at the Cable Advertising Bureau conference in New York -- will be called MBC News and will hew to the themes of its parent channel, which began in 1998 as a religious network but now bills itself as a family and sports channel, though much of its schedule is still occupied by Christian shows.
"We will provide a top-notch news product 24-7 and we're going to provide a steady diet of information," said Travis Mitchell, executive vice president of the network.
MBC News has been planned for two years, Mitchell said, long before BET cut its news programming, but that move "has created an enormous opportunity for us."
BET dropped all news programming except for its Nightly News at 11 because "we couldn't find advertisers to cover the cost of them," said BET President Debra L. Lee. When BET had its own news correspondents in cities around the country, each year at budget time, "we'd say, 'Which cities do we really need someone in this year?' " Lee said, adding she wishes Gary luck with MBC News. "I'm not sure a 24-hour news network is the way to attract people, but it may work," she said.
MBC, which has never been profitable, appears in 24 million U.S. homes in 48 states, including in the Washington area. Mitchell said he is negotiating with cable companies and hopes MBC News can launch in about 5 million households -- a very small cable audience. BET is in 72 million homes.
In an interview, Gary would not discuss how much the new network will cost to launch, partly because he doesn't want to tip his hand to future investors or potential buyers, he said.
He said he has been able to build MBC on the cheap, leaning on his friendships with celebrities and thrifty management. For instance, he said, when he launched MBC's "Future of Black America" town meetings, his staff said the shows would cost $5 million to produce. "I told them, 'You're going to get $500,000 and you're going to cut out travel for celebrity guests, you're not going to rent spaces and you're not going to pay for a 300-person audience,'" Gary said.
Instead, MBC typically tapes the town meetings at trade conventions where audiences already exist, and, in turn, provides publicity for the trade group. Gary hosted one such town meeting in Atlanta last week that featured boxer Evander Holyfield and former baseball slugger Cecil Fielder. Both are MBC investors, "so we don't pay them," Gary said.
Gary, 55, is a flamboyant lawyer who has an 11-minute video on his Web site (www.williegary.com) flaunting his courtroom successes and lifestyle excesses, including four Bentleys and two corporate jets, all shown against the theme from "Rocky." "I did it to inspire young people," he said of the video.
The past decade is strewn with ambitious black-cable-channel start-ups that have fizzled, "because they spent money they didn't have," Gary said. "It's unbelievable what programming can cost you. You can spend $100 million on programming overnight. But why would you spend $100 million on programming if you don't have but three people watching it?"
Mitchell said MBC News will air much of the same national and world news as rivals CNN and Fox News, but will emphasize stories of interest to black viewers and focus its talk shows on those subjects. As an example, Mitchell said that if the federal government released a study showing that hypertension has increased sharply among blacks, "the major news outlets are not going to lead with that story," Mitchell said, but MBC News might. Further, the channel would then devote talk and information shows to educate black viewers on ways to lower blood pressure, he said.
Gary has partnered with Bob Brillante, managing partner of Florida's News Channel, a cable network that delivers state news to more than 20 Florida cities from a Tallahassee studio that has changing backdrops to make it appear to viewers that the studio is in the city in which they reside. For instance, when the Florida News Channel broadcasts its local Orlando news segment, the Orlando skyline appears on the backdrop.
Brillante calls the partnership a good fit for him, as well. His studios, built in 1998, are underused. To increase revenue, he wanted to use his fiber-optic distribution network -- currently at 20 percent capacity -- to launch a national cable network. Nearly three years ago, he conducted research to find a hole in the cable market and found needs for Spanish-language news and news programming aimed at black audiences. Since national broadcasters such as Univision already serve the Spanish-speaking audience, he decided to target the black audience. He quickly met Gary and the two worked out a deal, the terms of which Brillante will not discuss.
Gary and Brillante said MBC News will hire some of its own correspondents and anchors -- former Headline News anchor Gordon Graham will be the MBC News lead anchor -- but will rely on deals with freelancers, print reporters and broadcast journalists around the world to compile its news feed.
"When evaluating the African American community, yes, it is a small segment of the population, but when you realize you can capture almost the entire segment of the population because there is no alternative, all of a sudden it becomes a very attractive market," Brillante said. Further, he said, "I don't think there could be a better time to create an urban voice for African Americans so they can participate in debates concerning social policy and politics."