J.C. Watts doesn’t want a black version of Fox News, CNN or MSNBC. Launching in the middle of Black History Month, the Black News Channel aims to fill the gap between African American interest channels and mainstream cable news networks.
“God, if you look at the TV dial, you can go anywhere and get news and information for any demographic that you want,” Watts says. “Gay, straight, yellow, brown, white, female, male. But there’s nowhere on the news dial or the channel lineup of the 200-plus stations that you can go and get news and information from the African American community. So we think we’re filling a niche for an underserved, underrepresented community and we think we're the venue to give the African American community a voice.”
The former Oklahoma Republican congressman, who retired in 2003, has spent the last decade trying to get BNC off the ground, but there’s been one problem.
“Distribution,” says Watts. “When [Spectrum TV] agreed and bought into our vision and ambition, we became a real network. Once you’ve got distribution, you can use whatever business model you want to use.”
Some customers can now see BNC on Spectrum, Xfinity X1, and Dish Network. By the end of the month BNC should be streaming on Sling, Vizio Smart TVs, Xumo and Roku Channel, giving the network reach into millions of homes, the company said.
Other networks offer dedicated news programming aimed at African Americans, such as TV One. But those networks are entertainment first, says Watts.
When it comes to the mainstream cable news networks, they don’t go deep.
“I do think you have other news sources that will have African American faces on their programs, but they don’t have content that is culturally specific to the African American community,” says Watts. “By no means am I being hostile to them, it’s just a reality.”
What makes BNC different? Watts says it will focus on black health issues, such as sickle cell disease, and contributions made by the black professional class.
Coverage of black communities often highlights sports and entertainment. Watts, who first gained national notoriety as the starting quarterback for the University of Oklahoma, says he’s not opposed to that coverage, but a whole swatch of black life goes unnoticed, including black doctors, lawyers, engineers and school teachers.
As the 2020 election heats up, Watts says you can expect to see reporters on the trail. The network also wants to build a pipeline with historically black colleges and universities to bring in African American talent through internships and training opportunities.
Watts says the network won’t be partisan and that he plans to visit Capitol Hill lawmakers and discuss satellite television legislation.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am that there is going to be a 24 hour, seven day a week Black News Channel,” California Rep. Karen Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said at a BNC event in December. “I was thrilled from day one.”
BNC, based in Tallahassee, Florida, is aiming to “provide culturally specific, intelligent programming that is informative, educational, inspiring, and empowering to its audience,” according to a statement. It’s partnering with the National Newspaper Publishers Association —an organization that represents African American newspapers nationwide—to “provide the network access to stories not covered by other news organizations.”