The announcement that Martin Luther King III and others will launch a new broadcast network catering to African-Americans begs the question of whether there's room for another such network alongside BET.
The better question: Why aren’t there more already?
As broadcast networks have failed to keep pace with African-American viewers' desire for shows that speak directly them, one of television's most reliable audiences has increasingly turned elsewhere.
Bounce TV, which will debut in the fall, believes that creates plenty of opportunity to compete with BET, BET’s Centric, and TV One.
"Our audience is so desperately underserved, we think they will welcome a fourth option – and one that will be an over-the-air, broadcast network,” Bounce co-executive vice president Ryan Glover told TheWrap.
For years, the 31-year-old BET has been the only network catering specifically to African-Americans. The network, which reaches 89 million households, grew to be one of the most successful on cable.
But BET’s heavy emphasis on sexed-up hip-hop videos has alienated some viewers, especially older ones – including co-founder Sheila Johnson, who said last year she was “ashamed” of the network she and her then-husband, Bob, sold to Viacom in 2000.
TV One, whose investors include Radio One and Comcast, has tried to take advantage of the age schism by appealing to African-Americans 25 and older. Since launching in 2004 it has grown to reach about 50 million homes and become BET's biggest competitor.
BET, in turn, launched Centric in 2009. The network, which also targets African-Americans 25 and older, is now available in 31 million homes.
BET has also pivoted to emphasize scripted shows more than music — just like fellow Viacom property MTV. So far it’s working: BET’s rescue of “The Game” (left) which CW canceled in 2009, earned stunning ratings for the network.
And viewing is also up overall. BET averages a 0.4 rating in primetime so far this year among 18-49-year olds, up from a 0.3 in 2006. For total day viewing, it has held at a .2 in the demo since 2006, only dipping to a 0.1 in 2008. Its current average numbers of viewers in the demo — 476,000 in primetime and 240,000 throughout the day — are both at their highest in five years, according to the Nielsen numbers.
Bounce, which will debut with a 24/7 mix of movies, sports, documentaries and original programming, will be available to viewers who don’t have cable and feel underserved by the major broadcasters. Like Centric and TV One, it will target viewers 25 and older.
Comcast, meanwhile, has pledged that it will begin broadcasting four more existing networks majority-owned by African-Americans in the next eight years, as part of its commitment to diversity to gain FCC approval for its NBC-Universal acquisition.
Comcast has talked to producers including partners Suzanne de Passe and Madison Jones about creating African-American programming, but no concrete plans have emerged.
Unlike cable networks, Bounce will be a digital terrestrial network designed for carriage on local stations' digital signals. Its founders hope that will allow it to reach viewers without satellite or cable, who until now have had no access to an African-American skewing network.
One downside to a free broadcast network, however, is that Bounce won’t collect licensing fees from cable providers, said SNL Kagan senior analyst Derek Baine. BET collects $0.17 and TV One $0.08 for each subscriber, according to SNL Kagan.
The lack of broadcast programming for black Americans – one of television’ s most reliable audiences – has been an abiding frustration to television producers of color.
"I do find it disappointing that we have a beautiful African-American family in the White House, but we don't have an African-American family sitcom on broadcast network television, 25 years after the success of 'The Cosby Show'" (left) said comedian and TV host Byron Allen, whose Entertainment Studios produces shows for cable and syndication. "I really would like to see broadcast networks step up and desegregate television."
But African-American viewers no longer need to look to networks to see characters they relate to.
"The broadcast networks have made a choice based on whatever their individual strategic plans are," said BET senior vice president of original programming Charlie Jordan Brookins. "We are focusing on our audience and how we can best connect with our audience. And our audience says that they want stories that reflect them."
A recent Nielsen report found that African-American have TVs on an average of seven hours and 12 minutes each day — two hours longer than Americans overall.
Despite that, notes Bounce’s Glover, only three networks now court the 14 million African-American TV households, compared to dozens that target the 13 million Hispanic households. (Language, of course, is a factor: Some of those networks seek people who solely speak Spanish.)
Laura Martin, a senior analyst at Needham & Company, said one challenge facing African-American-skewing networks is that advertisers can simply target all viewers, African-Americans included, on programs that draw a large, diverse audience, such as NFL football or "American Idol." The only built-in advertisers for networks like BET and Bounce TV, she said, are companies that sell products marketed especially toward African-Americans.
"Fifty percent of all cable channel revenue comes from advertisers," she said. "Do advertisers feel they're better served just putting an ad on CBS or sports and hoping to reach blacks that way? They'd rather just reach all Americans."
Networks have tried to create universally appealing scripted shows in part by placing African-American actors in prominent, often colorblind roles in ensemble dramas. But for all the network shows with mostly white casts, there are few led by African-Americans.
That has created an opening for cable networks — and perhaps for Bounce. BET's Brookins said it's too early to say if Bounce will be a rival.
"The African-American audience is very large, and we are large consumers of media content, so we don’ t expect to be able to serve everybody," she said.
Often with little publicity, cable networks have drawn African-American audiences right out from under the noses of the networks that once decided who would get to appear on TV.
BET’ s revival of "The Game" in January scored 7.7 million viewers — on par with an average episode of NBC's "The Office," and nearly 6 million more than the show earned in 2008-09 before the CW cancelled it.
TBS, meanwhile, has scored big with the kinds of African-American family comedies that once thrived on network TV: Tyler Perry’ s "Meet the Browns" (right) was the top-ranked scripted series among African-Americans in the crucial 18-49 demo, followed by Ice Cube's "Are We There Yet?" The shows averaged 1.08 million and 1.05 million African-American viewers in the demo, respectively.
Only "American Idol," television's most-watched show, scored higher among African-Americans in the age group.
Allen, for one, sees at least one upside to networks' failure to produce family, African-American oriented shows.
"Our company is planning to be very aggressive in that space, in terms of doing sitcoms for first-run syndication and cable," he said. "Because there's enormous talent that isn't being put to use."
John Sellers contributed to this story.