Despite Growing Competition, Is There Still Room For One More Black TV Network?

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by Tambay A. Obenson
August 13, 2013 5:11 PM
27 Comments
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While I'm certainly pleased to see growing competition in the black TV network space encourage chiefs of these networks to invest in new, preferably scripted original dramas and comedies, and while I've previously teased about the increase in the number of new black TV networks in recent years, I still believe that there's room for yet another black TV network that caters to what I call "the rest of us" - by that I mean, those of us who aren't the in the target demos for existing networks like BET (which is dominant in that space, I'd say, in terms of its original programming push), TV One, Bounce TV, ASPiRE TVSoul Of The South Network, and, quite frankly, Oprah Winfrey's OWN, even though it hasn't officially been branded a black TV network.  

A popular argument in favor of Tyler Perry's work is that he's making films and TV shows for an audience that was previously ignored and under-served by film and TV studios. I'd borrow that same argument and say that there's a significant black population in the USA that has long been, and continues to be ignored and under-served by film and TV studios - and many of them read this site, I'm sure.

I count myself, and most of my friends and acquaintances as "the rest of us." 

Surprise America! Black people aren't a monolith. We don't all like the same kinds of things - and, you know what, that's perfectly OK! We are a varied people, with different tastes, styles, expectations, wants, desires, etc, and it would be nice if that entire potpourri was represented as close to its full breadth as possible, on the big and small screen.

I recall the quote from Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues (a quote I've shared on Facebook a few times), when Shadow challenges Bleek's lament about the lack of support they see from black people, stating: "The people don't come because you grandiose muthafuckas don't play shit that they like; if you play the shit that they like, the people will come. Simple as that."

And when I've posted that quote in the past, there's always the question raised about whether or not the people will indeed come, if you "played shit that they like."

I say, look at Tyler Perry's incredible success. His people came, didn't they? Obviously, they like the "shit" that he's playing. 

BET has had a tremendous run with its recent hit series, thanks in part to its deal with The Akils, as well as other plays the network has made, demonstrating its intent to mature into the kind of network that I think many hoped it could be. 

Also take a look at OWN's recent surge as another example.

So there's no reason to believe that a black TV network that caters to "the rest of us" can't also thrive in this competitive environment. 

So what am I looking for exactly, you're probably wondering?

Well - comparisons are the easiest and most direct way to describe what I'd like to see on my TV. So, I'd say that I believe that a black TV network with a primetime programming lineup that resembles an AMC, or the FX network, would be awesome!

I'd love to see ADULT black dramas that can compete with the likes of Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, The Americans, The Killing, Justified, Sons Of Anarchy, etc, etc, etc...

Netflix's recent original programming push is also exciting, from The House of Cards, which I really liked, to Orange Is The New Black, which I haven't quite been able to get into, but is something of a darling amongst many black people I know. But I love the effort. And there's still more original programming to come from Netflix.

Note that I'm not asking for "black versions" of all the shows I just mentioned; But black TV programming that can compete for my attention with those critically-acclaimed, commercial TV hits.

Of course, not every single show on AMC or FX is a hit, or is as strong as those I mentioned. Each network does have its share of "fluff." AMC's daytime programming is comprised mostly of old movies; and you'll find a few reality TV series on week nights on most cable and network TV channels. What's key here is that they have a solid primetime lineup of intriguing, risk-taking, adult dramas to compliment. 

Now, I'm certainly not naive. I'm fully aware that good content comes with a price. Sometimes a very high price. Netflix reportedly payed about $100 million for House Of Cards. Even network TV shows like Scandal, cost $2 to $3 million per episode to produce. 

AMC Networks (parent company of AMC TV, the Sundance Channel and IFC Channel) recently announced its earnings for the 2nd quarter of 2013, emphasizing the increased cost of content, which affected its overall earnings growth year-over-year. 

So, I realize that it's a lot easier said than done. Although I think it's, in part, a question of whether profits now is much more important than investing heavily in great content now that eventually pays off later - at least, you hope so.

After all, there are risks involved. Some of your favorite shows, which have become hits for the networks that air them, were passed over by other networks previously. Series that likely seemed like surefire hits initially, to network execs, failed to hold audiences, and eventually crashed and were canceled.

But I truly believe that there's a black audience that's hungry for adult dramas, comedies, thrillers, action series, mystery, horror, and combinations of all of those genres (like those I listed above, and others), with predominantly black characters starring in them, showing us at our best, our worst, our most kind, our most evil, and everything between.

Let me stop and say that I'm certainly not knocking existing black TV networks. As I highlighted earlier, each network has its target audience, and it's short-sighted to think that every single black person is (or the majority of black people are) being reached by these existing networks. There are roughly 40 million black people in the USA; the 6 season premiere episode of The Game this year, drew 2.5 million viewers, by comparison. 

Like I said, we're a varied and diverse people, and while a popular series like The Game clearly speaks to a significant black audience, I and almost every black person I know personally, aren't members of that audience. And, again, that's perfectly OK

The Rickey Smiley Show, which was recently renewed for a second season, suggesting it's doing well enough for the network that carries it (TV One), clearly has its own supportive audience, and, gasp, it actually may not be the same audience that watches The Game, or Being Mary Jane, for example.

The 2 new series Tyler Perry created for OWN have seemingly done well for Oprah's network, but, again, these aren't programs that a lot of us watch.

Shocking, right?

So what about the rest of us who watch TV, looking for what we feel are shows that appeal to and speak to us, that also happen to be created by and star black people? I suppose we could look to the web certainly, especially as what we now know as "TV" in 2013 is being redefined, and isn't quite what it used to be 10 to 15 years ago.

And I suppose that's what a lot of us are doing. Or, if you're like me, you're just not watching a lot of TV. I actually canceled my cable TV subscription a few months ago, and rely on the web, Netflix, Amazon, and my Roku box, for much of my content.

Certainly, existing black TV networks can add the kind of primetime programming that appeals to folks like myself, to their respective lineups, and it may just take a little while to get there. 

Or maybe not. As I said, each has its target demo, and to suddenly introduce programming that doesn't immediately seem like a good fit with that specific audience, could be disastrous - especially financially, given the costs involved.

Although I was pleasantly shocked when I learned that BET had boarded Canadian filmmaker Clement Virgo's anticipated screen adaptation of author Lawrence Hill’s award-winning bestseller, The Book of Negroes.

So maybe that's one answer.

But, to wrap this up, if there existed a black TV network that resembles the one I summarized above, is there a large enough audience to support it, ensuring that these edgy, aggressive, smart, gritty programs of all genres, stay on the air?

Discuss...

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27 Comments

  • the rest of us | August 15, 2013 5:32 PMReply

    ITA Tambay ... ITA

  • Algebra Works | August 15, 2013 2:22 AMReply

    Where all the black kids at from back in the day? Gotta pay to see will smith and his kids (I love them but they ain't on cable). Have a open call for some new black kids on the block. 'What you talkin' bout willis'

  • Algebra Works | August 15, 2013 2:16 AMReply

    Where's Bill Cosby? Now Black kids think they White watching damn Disney. That ain't right!

  • Algebra Works | August 15, 2013 2:26 AM

    'Good Times' for our kids Mr. Simmons. That's what I'm talking bout' No more #prisonindustry. No more 13th amendment.

  • Jean | August 14, 2013 8:10 PMReply

    I don't care for the sitcoms and dramas but I would love to see documentaries.

  • Barbara | August 14, 2013 8:02 PMReply

    All the Black networks need to come together and create one or two network, and give us "diversity" in programming.

    It's difficult to always be bombarded with depressing stories such as "The Help," "Django," "12 Years A Slave," "The Butler," etc. It's hard enough having to face racism in this country at work/shopping/driving; but to be "entertained" by it too is just too much. We need entertainment that will take our minds off of the daily tribulations. That's not to say Slave movies shouldn't be made; but not ALL movies should be about our tribulations.

  • ernchamp | August 14, 2013 7:20 PMReply

    I've dreamt of the day there was a Black network that carried the content you mentioned....and had a real daily news show in addition.

  • Monique a Williams | August 14, 2013 6:40 PMReply

    As TV and the net merge, another Black network isn't as necessary as a hub that culls the content that speaks to this audience. Avenue TV is one such Internet site that caters to the blerds and urban geek creatives, curating a variety of popular content from television as well as interesting web originals. It launches officially next month, but check out the beta site, Www.avenuetv.net.

  • Phred G | August 14, 2013 5:22 PMReply

    As far as comedies go, though I thoroughy enjoyed THE COSBY SHOW, I found Ice Cube's ARE WE THERE YET? quite hilarious. It had its growing pains but once 'there' the ensemble cast worked quite well in their roles. Mom&Dad had their issues (including sex, or the lack thereof). Telma Hopkin's "evil mother-in-law" character evolved (THE THANKSGIVING DINNER EPISODE w/ Lynn Whitfield was great). The kids were believable as 'kids', not always just as 'BLACK kids'. Ayyyunnnnnnd the 'white friends' weren't always totally hip/stupid/clueless. Even the guest stars were interesting (THE LINDSEY GETS HIGH EPISODE guest starring Todd Bridges…come on!). I for one would like to see more comedies like this. Ok, that's MY two-cents worth…OOPS SEVEN-cents worth (inflation y'know). BYE!

  • Please Respond | August 14, 2013 1:48 PMReply

    I read your article. Then I read the comments. I went back and re-read the article, and I'm still not sure of what you want in your programming. Do we really need another Black network or should the ones standing be offering more variety? I think it's the latter, but I may just be in the minority on that one.

    Anyways, I'll just start here and hope you or a commenter responds:

    In an attempt to make The Game a "black show" I'd venture to say that the Akils destroyed the appeal the show originally had when it aired on the CW. I'm glad the show has found new success, but it lost a lot of viewers when it switched hands (read:writers). I, like you and your friends, enjoyed the show but then caught it a few times on BET and wondered WHAT THE **** IS THIS ****? It wasn't the same show I'd fell in love with. Just glancing at it now, there are only 3 surviving members of the original cast. Why? They abandoned their old audience for a new one.

    OWN has really only seen a recent stream of success due to stars lending their star power (Beyonce/Jay z/A. Keys) and Tyler Perry (T.P.). So, it's still too early in the game for her and her network. It'll be interesting to see what she does outside of T.P. to bring in viewers, which I believe her network really has the ability to do (read: cater to your demographic). The brand is already known, it is just a matter of finding content that can reach far in wide. I question whether Oprah really cares to take on that responsibility. She's definitely doesn't have too.

    A lot of the shows you named I haven't seen, but a quick look-up on IMDB and most of them are period pieces. One hurdle right there is trying to compete with time periods in which our people weren't even considered people or we had restricted rights. No one wants to see Roots re-aired. And I'd bet "the rest of us" aren't really looking for shows with pimps & hoes or another drug-related show.

    Although, I have a feeling a drama based on pimps & hoes would entice those because it hasn't been done before. And if done correctly, could be a potential contender. *Marks down Pimps & Hoes in writing notebook* lol

    You say you aren't asking for black versions of those shows, BUT in essence you're doing just that. I'd love to see MINORITIES in more leads and in more ensemble cast, too. However, they have to sell it and it can't be the same wave of black actors. You know EXACTLY what I mean when I say that. I've seen and read past interviews on the work for AA's in Hollywood, but we need new faces to break in too. (That's for another discussion)

    Breaking Bad's equivalent is The Wire. I'm curious to know if you support Luther. Or if you were supporting Hawthorne. What about the now defunct Deception? I know your focus was mainly on dramas, but I'd like to see more comedies and children's series with minorities in the leading roles.

    Putting my grammar aside, I'd really like to see you respond. I realize you aren't bashing these shows and networks, but you aren't really doing them any favors either. I'm an aspiring screenwriter/film-maker. I have my own ideas and theories, but I'd be interested in at least TWO themes from you that you could realistically see as dramas and starring African Americans.

  • Daryl | August 14, 2013 1:21 PMReply

    There is room for more black tv networks. A great tv series will carry a network. I think investors are investing too much to start up networks now. This is not the same tv era before the internet. People have unlimited options now on what they want to watch. The tv network business model has got to change. Nobody is going to watch the same network 24/7 now, at the most you lucky if people watch your network 10 to 20 hours a week, so your business model has to reflect that, knowing the numbers are not going be there like they use to be, in other words you can't overspend if you know you don't have the audience like that to support a 24/7 network. I think the weekly tv series format is going the way of the dinosaur, You are going to have to release tv series all at once and let the people decide their own programming format on how they want to watch it.

  • illthoughts | August 14, 2013 12:12 PMReply

    Let the rest of us say, Amen.

  • the rest of us | August 15, 2013 5:33 PM

    Amen.

  • Rod Faulkner | August 14, 2013 11:49 AMReply

    Well, I'm a black person who doesn't care for most of the programming on the existing networks. I'm a fan of intelligent comedy (like the late, great "The Cosby Show") and adult dramas like "Scandal." I also love sci-fi and what others would call "geeky" content. The notion that black people don't like fantasy or sci-fi is very misinformed. Just Google "blerd" (black nerd) or "black geek" and see the results you get. I can assure you, if content is created "for the rest of us" it WILL be supported - because black people are not homogeneous.

  • Marquis Smalls | August 14, 2013 2:16 AMReply

    Stay tuned for what I'm bringing.

  • FactChecker | August 13, 2013 11:58 PMReply

    I am also in agreement with you, Tambay, and what many of the other posters stated - particularly what Brandon mentioned. There does seem to be huge risk aversion and a conservative leaning toward tried, and true, programs that feel like they belong in another era.
    I don't know that I hold out as much hope as others that we'll ever see a network "for the rest of us."

    Unfortunately, what I see is "the rest of us," seeking to do it on their own or within the context of the existing network system, which is what Shondra Rhimes and Ava du Vernay, have done. I had hoped TV One would have sought to be a network for "the rest of us," but it hasn't turned out that way. They're only, slightly, ahead of the niche that BET created, which is disappointing.

  • Mark & Darla | August 13, 2013 11:31 PMReply

    Don't like sci-fic never did and never will, black folks who love to see a sci-fic with a black cast, hope your dream come true one day.

  • Miles Ellison | August 13, 2013 11:04 PMReply

    I'm not convinced that there is a substantial black audience for the entertainment you're describing.

  • Monique a Williams | August 14, 2013 6:33 PM

    Respectfully disagree.

  • E.D. | August 13, 2013 9:14 PMReply

    I don't think we need more Black TV networks. We need a station to rise to challenge of providing thought provoking, great acting, and well written programming. Our standards are to low, nothing wrong with a sitcom, but you should strive for the type of writing that was on the Cosby show, Jefferson's etc. There are plenty of well written black novels that can be adapted into movies and TV shows. Classics from James Baldwin and Zora Neal Hurston to name a few. With contemporaries like Octavia Butler and Nora Jemison. These are just a few, with many other black graphic novels and original screenplays that can be adopted for screen. I want to believe that all black people would watch a network that continued to strive for excellence.

  • ALM | August 13, 2013 9:28 PM

    But that's the point of this article. "Our" standards are not low, because "we" are not all the same. The existing networks are missing a good 30 million of the approx. 70 million African Americans in this nation because "we" are not a monolith in terms of entertainment tastes.

  • ALM | August 13, 2013 8:23 PMReply

    I agree with you on this, Tambay. The network you mentioned would do amazingly well, since a lot of African Americans already watch shows such as "Breaking Bad" and "The Walking Dead".

    Just as other races of people, African Americans also love well done, well thought out tv. There can be a younger skewing network for those up to 25 years of age. Then there can be a network more aligned with what you describe, for approx. ages 25 to 55/65.

    It is going to take the right group of people with the right vision joining together to create programming, while leaving their personal, individual agendas aside.

    At this point, I almost wish that Aspire, Bounce and TVOne would just merge into very strong network. Personal agendas will probably prevent that from happening, though.

    I have said this before, and I say this again. TVONe actually started with the right idea- lifestyle shows, home improvement shows, "Turnin' Up the Heat with G. Garvin", etc., but it is if they have regressed over the years in terms of overall quality of programming.

    I have several family who have only had TVOne for a year or two, even though the network is almost ten years old. This speaks to a key issue. It takes way too long for these new networks to actually reach their core audience. Cable providers can effectively block millions of people from watching tv shows. By the time most of my family received TVOne as an option, the lifestyle shows were long gone. They only can enjoy G. Garvin in reruns. They don't even have access to the Cooking Channel, where he currently hosts a show.

  • Walter Harris Gavin | August 13, 2013 7:41 PMReply

    When AMC, HBO, Netflix commissions programs while they may have a "core audience" to which they are programming they make the assumption, rightly, that people outside that core audience are going to watch. The most popular programs whether, series or "specials" are really "event" programs that garner a large diverse audience. It seems to me that there is no reason why a "black" network can't and shouldn't create programming which may foster a "black" perspective, POV, but can appeal to a diverse audience. Why is it immediately assumed that because the network is "black" it therefore follows that only its audience is exclusive or should be of that segment.
    Commercial Television is about "selling an audience to an advertiser." So "black" networks for the most part aren't venturing beyond the limited range of programming they believe the audience will support and thus their sponsors will pay for. The whole system is short-sighted and highly risk averse. Black networks tend to "self-segregate" as a result, creating their own "ghetto."
    But here are some facts:

    The U.S. Black population is 43 million strong. Larger than 163 of the 195 countries in the world including Argentina, Poland, Canada and Australia.
    African-Americans are a driving force for popular culture. 73% of Whites and 67% of Hispanics believe Blacks influence mainstream American culture.
    With a projected buying power of $1.1 trillion by 2015, Black consumers remain at the forefront of social trends and media consumption.
    These reasons alone should be enough to foster a very diverse bevy of "black" networks.

  • ALM | August 13, 2013 8:29 PM

    You have a very different # from Tambay for the population. I actually think the # is closer to 70 million, but that's another conversation for another day.

    "Risk averse" is indeed the politically correct phrase for this discussion. LOL

  • AC | August 13, 2013 6:03 PMReply

    Yes! There is room for more black TV stations. I'm hoping that there will one day be an "Ebony Package" of sorts for digital and cable television. That way one can order all AfAm centered stations and avoid stations you don't want. It's a dream, but it's possible.

  • ALM | August 13, 2013 8:25 PM

    "Ebony Package", LOL I understand what you mean, though.

  • Brandon | August 13, 2013 5:59 PMReply

    Seems that the "safe" bet with Black TV programming is to go for middle to lower-middle-class Black women from the southern parts of the U.S. - otherwise known as the Tyler Perry demographic. The advertisers want those women because these women are usually (but not always) in control of what their household spends money on, not including the Black cosmetic and hair care products that are worth billions of dollars annually.

    If we could produce low-budget drama and (God forbid) science-fiction and put it on one of these Black networks and let people know it exists, we might get a paradigm shift, but this does require a massive leap of faith and Black TV programmers are notoriously short-sighted and conservative when it comes to designing shows. We invariably get a silly sit-com, or something about a Black woman needing to find salvation through church, or something sexual that celebrates superficiality and materialism."

    I don't know what can make the shift.

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