The Soul of the South Network, targeting African-American viewers, said Thursday it will launch in 30 markets May 27 after closing an initial round of funding for $10 million raised from the state of Arkansas and private investors.
The new network will be distributed initially by over-the-air stations and on digital channels on the broadcast spectrum but also plans to air on cable and expects its stations to qualify under FCC must-carry rules (which mandate nearby cable systems must carry it) because it is local and offers unique news programming.
“Our distribution footprint covers at least 70 percent of all African-American households in the south and in Chicago and Philadelphia, which we call sister regions,” says Doug McHenry, the Hollywood-based producer of films including New Jack City and House Party and TV shows including Malcolm & Eddie, who is the new network’s president of entertainment.
By the end of this summer, Soul of the South expects to be in 50-60 markets with a high concentration of African-Americans, reaching 30-40 million households.
At launch over Memorial Day weekend, the network will not have any original programming outside of an active news presence in its local markets. McHenry says execs are in active negotiations with three Hollywood studios about licensing appropriate programming, including past situation comedies, dramas, documentaries and movies.
By some time in 2014, McHenry anticipates the network will offer at least one night of completely original programming in primetime — comedies, dramas, documentaries, specials and movies — which he says will be on a par in terms of budgets and ambition with what you might see on BET or TV One.
McHenry will operate out of his current offices in North Hollywood, Calif., and is continuing to produce and direct his own movie and TV projects. He recently directed a Lifetime movie, Borrowed Moments, and a sequel, House Party: Tonight’s the Night for Warner Bros. and the Fuse Network. He is also developing features.
McHenry is reaching out to African-American stars from the South to appear on the network in promotional spots and as part of interstitial content between shows (and to set up programming) but has not made any deals yet.
McHenry makes the case that, according to the last census, African-Americans represent about 43 million U.S. TV homes but are served by only a handful of specialized networks including Viacom’s BET and TV One, as well as newer entrants such as the Aspire and Bounce networks.
By contrast, says McHenry, there are about 47 million Hispanic households in the U.S., which have the choice of about 50 different TV networks. “I feel that (the African-American) audience is underserved,” says McHenry.
The lead investors in the Soul of the South Network include Richard Mays, a former Arkansas Supreme Court justice and civil rights attorney, who is chairman of the board; Edwin V. Avent, who is CEO; attorney Christopher Rankin Clark, who is executive vp business and legal affairs; and Matthew J. Gruber from Mississippi, who is vice chairman of the board.
Avnet will lead the upfront sales effort. “In my 20 years of selling advertising,” says Avnet, “I have yet to see such unprecedented excitement from advertisers about the Southern markets and I expect that our ad sales team will be announcing a number of exciting partnerships in the coming months.”
McHenry says the hope is to convince national advertisers that there is value in customizing their advertising to the audience and market, just as he plans to do with their original programming. “We believe there is a difference in the lifestyles of an African-American in the South just as people are different in New York City,” says McHenry. “We want to celebrate and explore what is unique about the Southern lifestyle.”
The new network, which is based at a TV station the group has purchased in Little Rock, Ark., is expected to create 150 new jobs. That is part of the reason the Arkansas Development Finance Authority has contributed more than $1 million in equity financing and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission has approved a $500,000 renovation grant and more than $1.5 million in tax credits. The Arkansas Capital Corporation, a private nonprofit agency, also kicked in a $1.5 million mortgage (backed by the federal Small Business Administration) being used to purchase the 30,000-square-foot production facility that was formerly part of Equity Broadcasting.
“This is exciting news for Arkansas, as both an economic-development project and as a cultural enterprise,” says Arkansas Governor Michael Beebe. “We are proud to be the point of origin for the signal of Southern culture and diversity that Soul of the South will send into millions of American homes.”
The new network plans to have news bureaus in each of the major Southern capital cities. A sister company is going to manage stations in Tallahassee, Montgomery, Jackson (Mississippi), Atlanta and Raleigh, as well as Chicago and Philadelphia.
News veteran Tom Jacobs and Matthew L. Mixon (who will also manage the station in Little Rock) will head the news operations and are recruiting news staff from around the U.S. Within a year, the network plans six hours of news a day.
Larry Morton, former CEO of Equity Broadcasting, is chief operating officer, and Frank Mercado-Valdes, former CEO of African Heritage Networks, is chief strategic officer. Others on the team include Carl McCaskill, executive vp branding and business development; Maurice James, senior vp network production; Sherman Kizart, executive vp corporate advertising sales; former Johnson Publishing executive Jeff Burns, senior vp integrated marketing; former BET executive Curtis Symonds, executive vp sports and cable distribution; Jeffrey Lyle. chief technology officer; Jeff Timpa, vp national programming; and Adrianne Smith, national ad sales. Advertising firms MaxAD Media and Brandworks USA are also involved and TVI Media Sales will handle direct response advertising. Terry Hines & Associates is doing the PR. The distribution technology is being done with Gateway Media Technology.
“We will create a unique distribution platform by combining full-power television stations, Class A low-power TV stations and digital sub channels with cable,” says Morton, adding that the network’s “cloud-based servers … can provide custom feeds and operate up to 100 stations simultaneously from our Little Rock location.”