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Forging a New Urban Network

Apr 21, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Mr. Rodgers is returning to his neighborhood. A year after resigning as president of Discovery Networks U.S., Johnathan Rodgers is back leading a television network.
The service, backed by Comcast Corp. and Radio One and tentatively called TV One, will target black adults. Although the network will not be primarily a news service, Mr. Rodgers said that information and public affairs will be a substantial component of the programming.
“I am a news person, I love news and I know how important it is,” he said.
Mr. Rodgers, 57, cut his teeth in the news business. In his career he has operated a studio camera (“Not very well,” he conceded), produced local newscasts, been a news director and general manager and overseen the CBS owned-and-operated stations.
One could say that Johnathan Rodgers has already done it all in television, but his latest endeavor presents a whole new set of challenges. Mr. Rodgers has never built a network from scratch.
“This is brand-new for me, starting from ground zero,” he said. “I have to hire every employee, find a building, look for office space in New York and Los Angeles and Chicago, talk to agents and look at programming. As we speak, I am the sole employee of this venture.”
The lack of direct experience at network building should not be a problem, said Jay Feldman, who hired Mr. Rodgers at Chicago’s WBBM-TV more than 20 years ago. The two worked together again in the 1990s, when Mr. Rodgers called on Mr. Feldman to run Discovery’s newly acquired Travel Channel.
“Johnathan picks up relationships and knowledge along the way, and if he does not know how to do something, he knows whom to ask. A lot of leadership is finding the best people, and that’s something he’s very good at,” Mr. Feldman said.
Filling a Need
Scheduled to launch next fall, TV One will target black adults between the ages of 25 and 54, an audience Mr. Rodgers believes is largely underserved by programmers.
Black Entertainment Television, aiming for a younger audience, concentrates its information programming on its signature 11 p.m. (ET) telecast, BET Nightly News, anchored by former CNN anchor Jacque Reid. BET has produced recent prime-time public affairs specials featuring Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Secretary of State Colin Powell. A June special will focus on how the spread of HIV/AIDS affects the black community.
Nina Henderson Moore, BET’s executive VP for news and public affairs, welcomes the competition from TV One.
“There is room for more than one women’s network, more than one sports network, so I don’t see why there would not be room for three or more black networks,” Ms. Moore said.
BET does a good job of reaching younger viewers, Mr. Rodgers said, but information programming for black adults is in critically short supply. While praising cable and broadcast news operations for doing a “marvelous job of covering the news,” Mr. Rodgers cited a need for documentary and public affairs programs on issues of interest to black adults.
“Recent surveys show, for example, that a majority of African Americans are against the war,” he said. “Our programming might reflect that viewpoint.”
Up Through the Ranks
Mr. Rodgers began his broadcasting career in 1974 as a producer and reporter at WNBC-TV, the NBC O&O station in New York. He entered news management seven years later when Mr. Feldman named him assistant news director at CBS O&O WBBM. Moving to the network side in 1982, he served as executive producer of CBS’s Nightwatch program, executive producer of weekend news and ultimately executive producer of the CBS Morning News.
His 1986 return to Chicago as general manager of WBBM came at a time of enormous turmoil for the station. Operation PUSH, led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, staged a boycott of WBBM and CBS over what the organization termed the “insensitive and unwarranted” firing of black anchor Harry Porterfield.
Mr. Rodgers attacked the issue by hiring minority talent, including Lester Holt, now an anchor at MSNBC, and weatherman Steve Baskerville as well as several minority reporters. He promoted a number of women and minorities into management positions. Within weeks, Operation PUSH called off the boycott.
In 1990 CBS named Mr. Rodgers president of its owned-and-operated stations, a post he retained until joining Discovery Networks in 1996. Discovery expanded rapidly during his tenure, growing from two networks to 11 by the time he left in 2002.
Solid Support
The road to developing TV One is fraught with hurdles. It is much tougher to launch a new program service these days, and gaining full distribution on cable and satellite is likely to take many years. Nonetheless, Mr. Rodgers is undaunted.
“This is an idea that is long overdue, and I don’t see any real obstacles,” he said. “The [cable] operators get it, and the advertisers we have talked to get it. If we do our job properly, the programming will be worthy and the demand will be voracious.”
Comcast’s considerable financial clout will help grease the skids to success. The company’s cable footprint comprises 22 million households, about one-fifth of all TV households in the country. Comcast and Radio One have reportedly committed as much as $130 million to the venture over the next four years. Moreover, Radio One, with more than 60 urban-market radio stations, provides a natural pulpit from which to help market the service.
Mr. Rodgers added that in the long run his goal is a bit more altruistic than just getting a new channel launched.
“Somewhere down the road, the African American community will have something that it can be proud of,” he said. “Then, at least in the world of electronic media, we will have arrived.”