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TV One to Challenge BET for an Audience

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NEW YORK (AP) _ Jonathan Rodgers will tell anyone who listens that his new TV network aimed at black adults is not, repeat NOT, trying to compete with BET.

Not everyone is buying the pitch _ certainly not the Black Entertainment Network. But Rodgers' ability to say that with a straight face speaks volumes about what BET has become and the glimmer of hope that offers to others trying to infringe on its turf.

TV One, a partnership between the popular Radio One network and the Comcast cable company, is planning to launch next year with a focus on blacks aged 25 to 54 who feel disenfranchised by BET's emphasis on youth.

Rodgers, TV One's president and the former head of Discovery, is trying to sell the service now to cable and satellite operators.

While BET is heavy on hip-hop, TV One will start with rerun comedies and dramas. TV One will also be heavy with the type of nonfiction programming the Discovery networks have made popular _ stories about dating, decorating, weddings and births _ focusing on black participants.

``It's not us or BET,'' Rodgers said. ``The African-American marketplace has been so underserved. Why should we have only one channel? And if there are two channels, that they have to be competitors?''

According to a recent study by the ad-buying firm Magna Global, the median age of the BET viewer during daytime is 21. In prime-time, it's just under 27 years old. That's significantly younger than just a year ago, when BET's prime-time median age was nearly 32.

In the youth-centric television business, those are demographics to die for. Some of the few cable networks that skew younger, MTV and Nickelodeon, have been, like BET, hugely profitable.

Yet with BET the only major network with ``black'' in its name, the focus on youth with a heavy dose of hip-hop music has long been the source of grumbling in the black community.

It's as if white Americans had only one choice of networks _ and it was MTV, Rodgers said.

``Anybody who is trying to compete with them, if they went a little bit older, they would have a much better chance,'' said Steve Sternberg of Magna Global. ``They certainly can't get much younger.''

Many who have watched BET founder Robert Johnson amass his fortune over the years admire his business decisions. Since he has never truly been pressed by a major competitor, he hasn't spent much money on programming; there are few things cheaper than filling hours with music videos.

``If you look at what advertisers want, in most instances, they want younger,'' said Debra Lee, BET's president. ``So that's why the bulk of our programming is younger.''

But Lee disputes the view that youth is everything BET is after. As the broadcast day goes on, the programming _ including gospel shows and some news _ skews older, she said.

BET's decision to add syndicated programs like ``Soul Food,'' ``The Parkers'' and ``Girlfriends'' this fall has been widely seen as an effort to bring up the median age and head TV One off at the pass.

``One of the things I see wrong about TV One is that it strikes me that they're trying to define who we are instead of trying to define who they are,'' Lee said. ``We are the No. 1 network among black households. We reach all ages.''

Rodgers, an industry veteran, steers clear of badmouthing Johnson and said black viewers who clamor for more aren't necessarily mad at BET.

``It serves an important purpose and it's just a great business,'' he said. ``People respect that and respect Bob. What they don't like is that they don't have any choices.''

In addition to their startup programming slate, TV One is also working with New Millennium Studios, the company created by former ``WKRP in Cincinnati'' actor Tim Reid, to develop movies and series.

The new network will steer clear of news and sports, ceding that territory to the Atlanta-based Major Broadcasting Corp., which in February announced plans for a spinoff 24-hour news network for blacks.

If any of Johnson's business decisions that can be questioned, it's that he didn't invest over the years in a series of BET-affiliated networks that would cover a broader spectrum of interests _ like Discovery Communications did with its 14 networks.

BET has created separate networks devoted to jazz, hip-hop and gospel music and helped launch, with Starz, a service of black-oriented movies.

``I don't think we've had any missed opportunities,'' Lee said. ``We just have gone into markets that we thought would work.''

TV One and Major Broadcasting are betting that BET was wrong.

They have a tough task. The industry is littered with failed networks; one BET competitor, New Urban Entertainment Television, gave up last year. TV One hasn't announced any commitments by cable or satellite operators to carry its signal yet, although Comcast, which has more than 20 million subscribers nationally, would seem to give it a head start.

Major Broadcasting is barely in a quarter of the nation's 107 million TV homes, not necessarily a strong base for a spinoff all-news network. The company is vague about a startup date, saying only it hopes to begin next year.

BET casts a long shadow, even if its relative paucity of news gave rise to the plans for Major's all-news cable network, said Greg Morrison, Major's news director.

``They have the advertisers, they have the households, they have the name recognition, they have 20-something years in the game,'' he said. But, he added, ``we truly believe there is a market out there that we can serve.''
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