ohnathan Rodgers can't stop talking. Sitting in his 10th-floor office overlooking Silver Spring, Md., on a cold, crisp day in late winter, Rodgers, 58, discusses the recent accomplishments and future goals of TV One, the one-year-old cable network he oversees as president and CEO. He eagerly responds to every question as if he's been thinking about the exact same thing for months, giving expansive answers, complete with numerical data, anecdotes and examples. The network's communications chief, who's sitting in, asks Rodgers if he needs a glass of water as he's been speaking for so long. Rodgers' reply: "I'm fine. I love to talk about this stuff."
For Rodgers, running TV One is more than just a job—it is a passion. For him, TV One is more than just a cable channel—it is a movement.
For almost two decades, Black Entertainment Television, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, was the only cable network focused predominantly on black audiences. Others, including Quincy Jones' New Urban Entertainment, tried to compete but failed. Only the Major Broadcasting Cable Network, now called the Black Family Channel, was able to survive more than a year, following its launch in 1999. But subscriber growth has been slow. On this sparse landscape of black-targeted programming the idea for TV One was born.
It was Alfred C. Liggins III, president and CEO of Radio One, who wanted to expand his family's radio empire into television after helping his mother Cathy Hughes take the company public in the 1990s; it would become the first publicly traded company owned by an African-American woman. But it was Rodgers' vision to create what TV One has become: a cable net for black audiences 25-54.
"For a lot of people, the concept of programming for African-Americans was satisfied by simply having one channel," Rodgers says. "But when you looked closer at BET, you saw its audience was younger-skewing. BET is a marvelous channel for young people, both black and white. But what about the rest of us? There was no home base for African-American adult audiences. I want to be that home base."
The foundation has been laid. Launched in January 2004 with a $130 million investment from Radio One, which owns 36 percent, and Comcast Corp., which owns 34 percent, TV One now reaches almost 20 million subscribers. Having passed Black Family Channel in distribution, the network has made inroads with viewers and advertisers to become a strong cable alternative for adult black audiences.
"Welcome," says Joi Tyrrell, media director at Omnicom Group's Spike DDB in New York. "The urban market is in need of high quality, adult-driven programming."
Rodgers correctly sees his target audience as a diverse group with varied tastes, depending on age and socio- economic background. Similar to white or Hispanic audiences, younger black viewers may want to watch music videos while their parents look for movies, series or news. But the one thing all black viewers want is to see themselves represented well on a medium on which they spend a lot of time and money, Rodgers says.
He points out that black households watch 50 percent more television than the general population, and that the largest portion of a family's investment in entertainment goes to the cable bill—almost $3 billion in total. According to research via the Cabletelevison Advertising Bureau's Web site, 78 percent of the 13.9 million black TV households subscribe to cable, with 25 percent paying for digital services.
"TV is important to African-American families, but they don't have choice," Rodgers says. "Right or wrong, the general population will not necessarily support a drama about African-Americans, or even a sitcom. Sure, there are the Fresh Princes or the Cosby shows, but that is the exception rather than the rule."
To flesh out the options, TV One offers a mix of original and off-network series old and new, including Good Times, 227, Boston Public and City of Angels. The lineup is far from perfect and has been criticized for its old reruns, repetition and lack of public affairs programming.
But TV One's focus is on lifestyle and entertainment. Through this filter, Rodgers and Co. are trying to aggrandize black images on TV by taking popular reality genres—makeover, home repair, poker, dating—and making them culturally relevant to black audiences. It may sound simple, but it's never been done before.
"If you look at multiple networks that do these kind of shows, you rarely see a black host or a Hispanic host or even a black person getting their house redone," says Lee Gaither, executive vp of programming and production. "This isn't about racism or anything; it is about the media's inability to do their homework and figure out what is going on in the consumer world."
Gaither said he had a similar problem at NBC in the '90s, when Friends and Seinfeld were at their peak and TV executives refused to acknowledge that people were married or had families, only wanting to portray self-absorbed, single New Yorkers. "Can I get an attractive housewife in here please?" was a frequent request, he says.
For example, TV One currently airs a show called Makeover Manor. Though every network has a makeover show these days, TV One's version fills a void by catering specifically to black women, as they have different haircare and skincare needs than white, Hispanic or Asian women.
TV One fills in the black gap in other areas. Singer Patti LaBelle allows cameras to follow her around, capturing her personal and professional sides in the series Living it Up. Chef G. Garvin whisks up the simple and soulful dishes he grew up with on his cooking show Turning Up the Heat. And TV One has acquired syndicated series B. Smith with Style. Smith, the model turned restauranteur and entertaining guru, has been described as the black Martha Stewart, imparting impeccable cooking, gardening and entertainment advice.
TV One airs traditional black programming like The Gospel of Music with Jeff Majors and specials like TV One on One, with Radio One founder Cathy Hughes interviewing important black figures including Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx. But Gaither has tapped into recent pop culture trends for many of the net's series. Divine Restoration is a makeover show with a twist—with black churches, rather than homes, being restored. Bid Whist ups the ante in prime time, centered around a popular, traditionally black card game similar to bridge. In $ingeltary $ays, columnist and NPR contributor Michelle Singeltary reorganizes people's financial lives, while Full Plate helps the overworked and under-appreciated woman of the house reconnect with family and friends by helping her prepare and host a dinner party.
"Their whole programming concept is about family, as opposed to its competition, which is young and mostly videos," says Ray Dundas, senior vp/group account director in Initiative's national broadcast department. "It's more akin to HGTV in terms of its appeal and tends to be older, which is appropriate for certain clients."
Doug Alligood, senior vp, special markets for BBDO in New York, says research bears that out. "As black audiences age, their tastes tend to reflect that of the general population—they have more in common with an older white audience than a young black audience," he says.
According to Alligood's analysis of fourth quarter 2004 ratings data from Nielsen Media Research, Nick at Nite is the top cable network among black viewers across all demos. The reason? Repeat episodes of The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Among African-American viewers 25-54, BET ranks in second place, followed by Lifetime, TNT and ESPN.
The top shows in black households in first quarter include American Idol (Fox), Girlfriends (UPN), Half & Half (UPN) America's Top Model (UPN) and NBC's Law & Order-related shows. As for Rodgers, he was eagerly awaiting the season premiere of The Shield on FX at the time of this interview.
"It would be nice if there was an acknowledgement on tele- vision that we aren't some homogeneous group," says Gaither. "Regionally, socioeconomically, boomers, Gen X, Gen Y—we are all different."
Rodgers remembers a time when there was hardly a black face to be seen on TV. "We used to have this tradition in the neighborhood that when an African-American appeared on television—The Ed Sullivan Show or Steve Allen—we would just call around because it was such a rare event," he says.
The son of a Tuskegee airman, Rodgers lived all over the country as a child. In his teen years, he landed in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was in San Francisco and the East Bay, the epicenter of progressive thought and protests in the turbulent '60s, that Rodgers grew up and began to talk about making a difference. He studied journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, and was told he could change things to make life better for minorities. He began to believe it. But it was never that simple. "Throughout my career in this business, as a broadcaster and then later in cable, I think I have always tried to work to make it better and to change things," he says. "For a long time, it was easy because of federal regulations…they looked at minority hiring practices…but then all of that disappeared with deregulation, so I felt our chance in the industry was falling away."
Rodgers began his career as a reporter and writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsweek before moving to TV. He spent many years at CBS, working for both the station group and the network. Prior to TV One, Rodgers was president of Discovery Networks for six years. As he moved up and around the media industry, he never saw the number of minority-owned TV stations or networks grow. He says he gave up.
Like other minority men of his generation, he walked the career path, playing by the rules and quietly opening up doors for the kids coming up behind him. Now the time has come for him to start stamping his feet to bring attention to the movement. "I feel really good about this because I think it is important that we African-Americans have something to call our own, something where we can control the images," he says.
TV One's first documentary, he points out, was about reparations made to families of former slaves. "The general market may not care, but for us it is a subject worth talking about," he says. "We also did black rodeo, which has existed forever but has never been on TV."
It was the perception of TV One's commitment to good, positive programming that convinced top radio personality Tom Joyner to take his show to television for the first time, says Oscar Joyner, the broadcaster's son and president and COO of Reach Media, which Radio One bought in November last year. "By putting Johnathan Rodgers in charge, it sent a message to us and the industry that TV One was about quality," the young Joyner says. "We knew they were in it for the long haul."
TV One launched last year at midnight with the Tom Joyner Sky Show. A live entertainment event that happens about 20 times a year, Sky Show had only been available to fans on the radio prior to the TV One partnership. Reach Media produced six Sky Shows for TV One last year and there are plans to up the number to 12 this year, incorporating more sketch comedy, more talent and a new look.
"Everyone wants to talk about the number of African- American viewers and their spending power," Joyner says. "Now is the time to put or shut up. Bring in the blue-chip advertisers and the powerful programming that does us right."
As far as selling ads on TV One, Keith Bowen, executive vp of advertising sales, is about promoting the African-American consumer market as much as he is about promoting the channel. "People don't know how powerful this group is," he says.
About 40 percent of the dollars spent in this country come from multicultural sectors, Bowen points out, and among those groups about 62 percent is spent by black consumers. In 2004, black consumers spent about $732 billion, and by 2008 that figure will jump 24 percent to more $900 billion, according to TV One's analysis of data from the Selig Center for Economic Growth.
Yet only about 1 percent of all national TV budgets are earmarked for African-American buys, and most of that still goes to BET. Bowen aims to change that as he takes TV One into its second upfront. His goal is to not only grow the pool of minority dollars but also attract more general-market budgets in categories like studios, pharmaceutical and packaged goods.
One problem is measurement. TV One is not rated by Nielsen Media Research and won't be until fourth quarter of this year. But media buyers crave competition in the marketplace and that alone may help TV One going forward.
"The fact is not all black people watch BET," says Tyrrell.
BET long enjoyed a stranglehold on the market, and in that position observers say it became a little complacent in the marketplace, offering little diversity on its schedule but expecting the ad dollars to roll in. But really, with 80 million homes and one of the highest profit margins in the cable industry, why should it change anything?
"BET has been a sacred cow," says Derek Baine, an analyst for Kagan Media. "Operators could not really threaten to drop them because they were the only major network serving African-Americans. No more. That being said, with Viacom now bringing it under the MTV Networks umbrella and spending more on programming, we definitely think they have a chance to improve their economics."
Faced with increasing competition and the departure of its founder and CEO Robert Johnson, the net is changing its image. BET earlier this year changed its tagline from "Black Star Power" to "It's My Thing." It also hired a new development chief, Robyn Lattaker-Johnson, who is focused on original programming. BET also rolled its affiliate sales team in with that of MTV Networks, its sister cable group under parent Viacom, and is searching for a new president to serve under COO Debra Lee.
It is unclear whether BET will be fully integrated with MTV. Viacom co-president Tom Freston has said he wants to revamp programming and ad sales and "make it a stronger first choice for African-Americans." But those close to him say he wants to let BET breathe on its own for a while and see what it can do. Both BET and Viacom declined to speak on the record.
BET seems to embrace its position as an alternative to MTV for the 18-34 demo—and in the scheme of things, that could be a good thing. "If BET says they are really going after this young market, and TV One goes after adults while Black Family Channel targets families, that is a neat thing," says Tyrrell. "There will three vertical titles going after the whole black community." Adds Rodgers: "As there is room for MTV, TNT and TBS, there should be room for us, BET and Black Family Channel."
In fact, Rodgers envisions a future of multiple, targeted networks for black audiences. "I don't think we need a children's channel, but I could see a young person's channel, a woman's channel, a men's channel," he says. "There is a bigger audience out there that warrants more dedicated programming."
But first, he needs to tend to TV One. The net has relaunched its Web site and rolled out video-on-demand services.
The biggest impediment to TV One's success at the moment is its limited distribution. "It isn't backed by another network where they can get leverage," Dundas says. "It's kind of like Oxygen, which is a great network but independent." And TV One is not yet available on cable in the New York market.
TV One is available on DirecTV in New York and is working on a carriage deal with Time Warner Cable. Stalling negotiations is that TV One wants to be carried on a basic tier wherever it can, and most cable operators don't have much analog shelf space to spare.
In the meantime, the net's relationship with Comcast, the country's largest cable operator, is paying off. Comcast put TV One on basic cable in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Richmond, Va., at launch. It is now converting the network to basic in Los Angeles, Dallas, Detroit, Cleveland and Oakland, Calif.
"We have made the grade on every level, and we are going to continue to invest intelligently in this channel to maximize it audience," chairman Liggins says. "For a channel that is only a year old, it looks pretty good, doesn't it?"
Adds Rodgers: "I am not only proud of the people here, but I am really proud of the industry, on the advertiser side and the cable operator side. You walk around taller having accomplished something like this. It is those Berkeley leanings—accomplishing something not only in the right way, but for the right reasons."
Megan Larson is the senior editor covering cable for Mediaweek.