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Let's make a deal

Corporate media set sights on African-American market

By Kim Campbell Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 22, 2000

It's slowly sinking in, both inside and outside cable channel Black Entertainment Television, that something has changed.

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On BET talk shows, hosts are making quips about having deeper pockets thanks to new owner Viacom, whose other properties include CBS, UPN, MTV, Country Music Television, and since three weeks ago, the all-black network.

Though country singer Faith Hill hasn't shown up among BET's music videos yet, the transfer of power concerns some in the African-American community, who wonder if it will become "Beige Entertainment Television." But for others, the $3 billion deal for 20-year-old BET represents a significant step forward.

"The day a lot of us knew was coming is here: We knew there would be a time when corporate America could not ignore African-Americans anymore," says Ken Smikle, who tracks black media and marketing. "We're the last piece of [corporate] earth that any of them can hope to yield any crops from."

At a time when the amount of media aimed at African-American and urban markets is growing, so are deals between black and mainstream media outlets.

In the past five years, these alliances have increased - offering black media access to resources and US and global distribution. In return, mainstream companies gain access to a growing population - with $490 billion worth of buying power - that consumes more media than the population as a whole.

"We think the African-American market is a very important one and a key one," says Peter Costiglio, spokesman for Time Inc., which formed a 49 percent partnership this summer with Essence Communications, publisher of Essence magazine. In recent months, Time Warner, Time Inc.'s parent company, grabbed, one of the projects of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Though it remains to be seen what effect such deals will have on content and future ownership of black media, observers say marriages are often necessary in today's competitive market.

"If you're starting out new in this environment, it's almost impossible to do without some type of major media partner who can really finance [you] ... until you get to the point where you build some credibility," says Alfred Edmond, editor in chief of business magazine Black Enterprise.

Even for veterans, there are benefits. Once the BET deal - which includes other BET networks and its Web site - clears regulators, Viacom has said it will not dictate programming, but will offer resources to help with marketing, for example, and possibly increase the number of homes (currently about 62 million) that have access to BET.

BET founder Robert Johnson, who will remain in charge for the next five years, says that black-owned companies are now operating in a different climate - one where segregation no longer rules and the African-American market isn't automatically left to them.

"Because of this new economic paradigm ... the only way for black businesses to better serve their market is to align themselves with major white corporations that are going after that market with or without these black businesses," he says in an interview from BET headquarters in Washington. "You shouldn't think of yourself as a black owner so much as you are a black person who can create value. Oprah is a perfect example of that."