November 25, 2004
Black Family Channel Starts 8 New Shows
LOS ANGELES - Robert Townsend first caught the film industry's eye with 1987's "Hollywood Shuffle," a clever satire about black actors trapped in demeaning roles. Now he wants the country to pay attention to what he calls a new kind of television, entertaining but with a sense of responsibility, especially toward young black Americans.
Black Family Channel, which Townsend joined as president and chief executive officer of production five months ago, is starting an ambitious slate of eight new programs geared for children, teenagers and families.
"With this network, we want to give people a sense of quality, integrity programming that speaks to them," Townsend said. "We don't want to be an old-school network where people don't want to tune in, but we want to get back to some of those old-fashioned values."
He cites Bill Cosby as an inspiration, both for Cosby's groundbreaking '80s sitcom and for his provocative argument that black youth is being undermined by factors including poor parenting and attitudes toward language.
"Everything that Bill Cosby is saying about families working together ... (that) we've got to reprogram these kids and we've got to shake it up, that's what we're doing," Townsend told The Associated Press.
It's as big a change for the channel as it is for Townsend, who moves from writing, directing, acting and producing to steering a rare minority-owned and operated TV channel (co-founders include boxer Evander Holyfield, baseball's Cecil Fielder and attorney Willie E. Gary.)
The major competitor is BET, Black Entertainment Television, owned by media giant Viacom Inc. and criticized in the past for giving viewers more music programming flash than substance.
Townsend - whose projects have ranged from TV and film comedies ("The Parent 'Hood,""The Meteor Man") to drama ("10,000 Black Men Named George") - figures his eclectic body of work prepared him to run a network.
While the career change is abrupt for Townsend, the channel is undergoing a more gradual transition.
Begun in 1999 as the Major Broadcasting Cable network, Black Family Channel will keep elements of the gospel programming that was part of its original mission. Music programs and documentaries also remain in place.
Following a plan of adding programming blocks, the channel was launching five new Thursday night shows this week. An "urban kids programming block" of three new daytime shows debuted last Saturday.
Among the new series: a talk show about teenage issues; a series celebrating spoken-word artists; and "Souled Out," a critical look at the messages in music videos.
The channel also plans to reinstate and increase its coverage of football games at historically black colleges, temporarily dropped while the new schedule was developed.
Townsend, who has four children aged 4 to 14, is passionate about his belief that television can help kids make the right choices in life. He urged Gary, the channel's chairman, to bring him on board.
"My mother raised four kids on her own; my father was not there. I was watching `The Andy Griffith Show' and Opie's lessons were my lessons. I think he taught me well," Townsend said. "He reinforced what mom was teaching me and the church was teaching me."
He cites one of the channel's new youth-oriented shows, "Lisa Knight & The Round Table," as a chance to influence youngsters.
"If some young kid is thinking about having sex and watches a `Round Table' discussion and hears, `Watch yourself, don't give into peer pressure,' I've done my job," said Townsend.
Black Family Channel is available in 14 million homes and virtually all of the top black TV markets, said Rick Newberger, the channel's president and chief executive officer.
He argues that black viewers represents a huge, untapped consumer market which, unlike the Hispanic one, is underserved by targeted channels.
Black Family Channel is sure to grow with the continuing conversion to digital cable, which allows for carriage of more TV channels, Newberger said. Discussions also are under way for satellite distribution.
"In most major cities viewers just have to call their cable operator and they can get us," Newberger said. "If they have a digital box in their home, more than likely we're there."
Industry analyst Larry Gerbrandt acknowledged there is concern among parents and others about the freewheeling content that is widespread on TV.
But Gerbrandt, head of the media and entertainment practice for Alix Partners, an operation and financial consulting firm, expressed skepticism about the growth prospects of a channel aimed at a defined audience.
"You want your programming to reach a maximum audience," said Gerbrandt. "The economics of television dictate that the bigger audience you can reach, the more successful you are. Limiting yourself up front limits your economics."
Townsend said the channel is not solely for black viewers and suggested it may consider a name change sometime in the future.
"Ultimately, we want it to be colorless. We want it to be the human channel - human emotions, comedy, drama. If you want something you can identify with, tune in," he said.
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