Tuesday 17th October 2017,
Televisual

How Many Black TV Networks Do We Need?

Thanks to NewsforTVMajors and MIT Center for Civic Media for linking!

We’re in for a deluge of black programming on television and on the net.

Last fall I spent a considerable amount of time pitching articles about the rise of the “black network,” without much success. Mainstream publications seemed uninterested. Black Web 2.0 was gracious and forward-thinking enough to publish my piece, which focused on the growth of web video networks: from Rowdy Orbit to Vision Tube, and GLO TV to Better Black TV (I’ve since learned of two more: BWE, the black women’s entertainment network, and Q3030, proposing to distribute to set-top boxes. It’s an exciting time! UPDATE: One more, MyCulture.tv).

One part of the story that didn’t make the cut was a section on the rise of the black network on traditional TV (I’ve pasted it below), which at the time seemed perhaps too obvious to publish.

Well, it seems I’m finally in sync with the times! Last week the black blogosphere was shocked to learn a new TV network was waiting in the wings, Bounce TV, which is billing itself as the first black over-the-air broadcast network, with such founders as Andrew Young and Martin Luther King III.

After the initial success of The Game and the migration of black film stars to TV, the question arises: is there a coming black TV renaissance? And how big of a renaissance do we need?

The Coming Black TV Renaissance? Many Signs Point to “Yes”

Source: Nielsen

One of the most interesting aspects of the black media market is how vibrant it’s always been. Black people were, for instance, among the first avid champions of cable. Today, black Americans watch more TV than any other ethnic group, are avid users of new apps like Twitter and devices like mobile phones, and are among the most vociferous supporters of indie web video, as evidenced by the flowering of networks over the past few years, mentioned above.

Bounce TV arrives at a time when black audiences have spent years lamenting their relative absence on TV screens, nostalgic about the post-Cosby boom of the 90s. Now, the blockbuster premiere of The Game is just one example of the desire black people still have for images of themselves — Tyler Perry and Ice Cube’s TV success is another (they keep making shows! UPDATE: And now TV Land is getting in on it).

Yes, BET has always been around and remained a relative success. But as Mark Anthony Neal writes, BET has never been fully satisfying: “The choices that Black viewers make in terms of television, are not unlike the choices millions of Americans make at lunch time deciding what to eat of the fast food strip in their town.”

To fill those needs, other networks have sprung up. BET/Viacom transformed BET J to Centric to focus on the older demographic, the same demo TV One and Bounce TV are trying to reach: those uninterested in lowbrow reality TV and glammed up black pop culture made for the 18-34 set. With Comcast adding minority networks as part of the terms of its merger with NBC, we may even get a few more (note: TV One is part owned by Comcast). (UPDATE: More networks, including Legacy TV and FunkTV; UPDATE 2: Yet another, KIN TV).

The Kind of Renaissance We Need: Adventurous, Quality Black TV

Clearly, then, there’s space for Bounce. Black Americans have historically had a distribution problem — getting our programs out to the public — from TV to online (potentially) to film (which is why the AFFRM is so important). Bounce’s efforts to circumvent the cable/satellite problem — that we have to pay for it — is a smart one.

But I have concerns.

The first of which is simple: with so many networks starting up online and on TV (see below), I’m growing concerned the channels will split ad dollars, cutting revenue for each. I’ll take two solid, well-funded networks over five poorly funded ones.

That’s unlikely to happen. What I really worry about is whether Bounce will bring more to the table. Bounce is sensibly starting by showing films and other licensed content, and will likely start distributing original shows soon. These shows will probably be either reality or talk shows, the default starting point for cable networks these days (see: OWN). It makes sense; it’s cheap.

e4's youth hit 'Misfits' is itching for a US-makeover, and an all- or mostly-black cast would translate seamlessly and raise eyebrows

So what’s the problem? The network’s aura of respectability suggests it will shy away from “trash,” which may be fine. But will it suffer from the opposite problem: will it be too safe?

To date, BET, TV One and Centric have yet to produce any of the kinds of buzzy shows other cable nets have been making: from the scripted fare of AMC and FX to the crazy reality shows of A&E and E!.

What I think we need is a black TV network willing to assert that black programming can be as provocative, smart and engaging as the many experimental shows out there.

How about adapting the UK show The Misfits with a mostly black cast? Or creating an historical narrative along the lines of Mad Men or Downton Abbey — perhaps of the Harlem Renaissance? What about those aspects of the black community traditionally left hidden on TV: gay/SGL/trans people, single mothers, and the like? How about a reality show like Sundance’s Brick City, exploring in complex detail the racial and day-to-day politics of managing a city?

It’s rather startling how some of the best “black” programming over the past decade or so has not appeared on black networks — The Wire chief among them, but also The Boondocks, Oz — and the primary culprit is BET, which has the cash to push boundaries but has traditionally played it safe.

Will these new networks push black TV to beyond the status quo? So far the odds are against them, but the first one to surprise us (and critics) will reap huge rewards.

For a little context — and because it’s been languishing in purgatory (my hard drive) — the unpublished second half of “Rise of the Black Network” article:

Beyond BET: Reaching Audiences on Cable (Dated: September 2010)

TV fans have probably noticed the growth on black programming on cable. BET leads the pack, spending the last couple of years ordering and developing new scripted programming: picking up The Game and the Queen Latifah-produced Let’s Stay Together. TBS is having a lot of success with Tyler Perry’s sitcoms and has already ordered 100 episodes of Ice Cube’s Are We There Yet? But beyond the usual suspects, new networks are springing up. BET is diversifying with Centric, aiming for an older audience, and TVOne started a few years ago to the do the same thing. Numerous networks, including BET and Centric, have been creating original programs for the web.

What viewers might not have noticed recently was the premiere of the Black Broadcasting Network, which went live in December of last year on Verizon and added two smaller cable providers this year in July and September, putting it in just under four million homes.

“Our target has been independent artists,” said Carolyn Clayton, BBN’s vice president of programming. “A lot of the mainstream networks do not give them an opportunity to broadcast their films”

The network mostly features independent films through video on demand and online and has new comedy specials and documentaries in the pipeline. In total it has 700 hours of programming and is targeting cable providers Comcast, Time Warner and Cox for distribution.

BBN joins slightly older and less publicized networks like the non-profit CoLours TV and Africa Channel, which shows programs, including soap operas, from the continent.

“We’ve been doing it for a number of years,” Tracie Lynn Randle, CoLours vice president of national sponsorship sales said.

CoLours has been growing, albeit slowly. The network focuses on multicultural programming and broadcasts some scripted shows, including a soap opera, Hacienda Heights, and numerous socially oriented programs focused on personal health and well-being, politics and cultural history.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

2 Comments

  1. Brindes May 29, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    I think television (and by that, what is aired on it) is always moving towards the money. So, like you said in your post, African American is currently the ones watching it more and if it is a confirmed trend we are going to see more and more programs and tvs focused on that public.