Black News Channel wants to give a voice to an underserved audience

Yodit Tewolde puts a spotlight on missing women of color each week on her Black News Channel legal program “Making the Case.” 

Like the other cable news networks, Black News Channel reported on Gabby Petito, the 22-year-old woman who went missing in September and was found dead later that month.

But the reporting was supplemented with discussions about the obsessive coverage that surrounded the white, blonde Petito’s story and how missing women of color are largely ignored by the media. BNC regularly reports on missing Black women and devotes a lengthy segment to their plight each week on its legal program “Making the Case,” hosted by attorney and former judge Yodit Tewolde.

While CNN, MSNBC and Fox News have focused on the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the white teenager accused of killing two people during a 2020 civil disturbance in Kenosha, Wisconsin, BNC has presented gavel-to-gavel coverage from the Brunswick, Georgia, courtroom where three white men are accused of chasing and killing Ahmaud Arbery, a young unarmed Black man, after spotting him running in their neighborhood.

The Tallahassee-based channel is the only full-time national TV news channel dedicated to serving Black viewers. BNC is available in more than 50 million pay TV homes, up from 2.5 million when it launched in February 2020, and is on most major carriers including DirecTV, Infinity, Spectrum and Cox. Next year BNC also will offer its programming as a direct-to-consumer online subscription service.

BNC is attempting to make inroads as cable TV news audiences are shrinking and technology has lowered the barrier of entry for video news startups, such as the Black Star Network, a streaming channel launched last month by veteran journalist and commentator Roland Martin.

Daunting endeavor

Launching a 24/7 news channel is daunting. The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera tried a U.S. version of its channel but pulled the plug after three years. Nexstar Media Group launched NewsNation in September 2020 and has struggled to find an audience.

BNC sees an opening, however, as a recent study by Nielsen shows 58% of Black audiences say they do not see enough representation of themselves on TV, despite their value to advertisers. Black audiences had buying power of $1.57 trillion in 2020, according to the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth.

BNC was co-founded by former Oklahoma Republican congressman J.C. Watts and broadcast executive Bob Brillante and launched with the backing of Shad Khan, owner of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. Khan holds a majority stake in BNC through a $50 million investment.

Over the past year, BNC has undergone a makeover led by Princell Hair, who was the first Black executive to lead CNN’s U.S. operations. He joined in July 2020, replacing Brillante as chief executive.

The channel, which started with 55 employees, delayed its launch several times. Hair built the staff up to 350 people and developed more personality-driven programs, which tend to draw the largest audiences for cable news networks.

While BNC advocates for Black people and causes, Hair said he is not out to create a partisan political channel.

“The mainstream networks have always looked at the Black audience as a monolithic audience,” Hair said. “A majority of Black Americans go to church every Sunday. Many of them have very conservative values. Our goal is to present as many voices as we can and allow the audience to make up their minds.”

Facing lawsuits

BNC has confronted some challenges. The company is facing a gender discrimination suit filed in August from a group of female employees who say they were being paid less than their male counterparts and operated in a “hostile work environment” where they were told they were “insufficiently feminine.”

A BNC representative said the claims were investigated by an outside law firm and the company believes they are baseless.

Hair has bolstered BNC’s talent roster, signing veteran hosts such as Sharon Reed, an outspoken local news anchor in Atlanta; and the Los Angeles-based Mike Hill, who joined from Fox Sports to helm “Start Your Day,” a breezy yet substantive morning show.

Hair also landed as prime-time hosts author and New York Times columnist Charles Blow and Mark Lamont Hill, a Temple University professor who learned TV by being a liberal foil for conservative stalwart Bill O’Reilly on Fox News.

In September, Hair brought on Aisha Mills, a Democratic political strategist whose pushback at conservative commentator Eric Bolling during a BBC segment last year led him to storm out of his camera shot.

Established TV news organizations have made an effort to improve diversity, especially after the 2020 police murder of George Floyd heightened the discussion of long-standing issues in the Black community such as social justice, law enforcement and racism. But that doesn’t mean issues facing the Black community are always addressed.

“It’s deceptive because you see there are a lot of people on the air who are African American,” said media strategist and political commentator Lauren Victoria Burke. “The problem is there are a lot of conversations that are not happening on those channels that are happening on BNC and #RolandMartinUnfiltered’ on a deeper level.”

Winning over skeptics

When BNC was first announced in 2019, progressive members of the Black community were skeptical due to the involvement of Watts, among the nation’s most prominent Black conservatives. Watts said early on that he planned to do a talk show on the channel with right-wing radio host Larry Elder, who this year became a GOP candidate for California governor. 

The program with Elder never happened and Watts has not been involved with the editorial product, said Hair, who oversees the news content.

“People were raising their eyebrow about how this was going to play out because J.C. Watts was involved,” Mills said. “But I have never seen the man. Haven’t heard from him.”

BNC is off to a slow start in the ratings, with Nielsen data showing an average audience of 3,000 viewers in prime time last month. The young channel has just launched its first advertising campaign.

BNC executives say they are mindful of the shift to digital platforms. The network already has a free streaming channel, BNC GO. It also has done outreach to journalism programs at historically Black colleges and universities, offering internships and raising awareness of BNC among younger consumers who tend to watch online.

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