The Separate But Equal News Network

Why J.C. Watts' black television venture is a bad idea.

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Getty Images

There’s a conservative joke poking fun at liberal media that predicts coverage of an impending apocalypse would have the headline “World to End: Poor and Minorities Hardest Hit.”

Despite his tenure as a Republican congressman, it seems J.C. Watts never heard that joke. Then again, maybe he did and just didn’t understand why it’s funny.

Watts recently announced his intention to start the Black News Television Channel—a news network targeted at blacks. An agreement has already been made with Comcast to broadcast the channel in cities such as Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit and Washington (but not New York City) as early as next year.

In an interview with the New York Post, Watts explained: “Our community features millions of people with all kinds of backgrounds. There’s a much broader segment of the population than what we see in mainstream news.”

Watts says he wants to get beyond the coverage that he implies too often links black faces to negative things such as crime. While breaking the media of its “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality would be a meritorious—if not Sisyphean—effort, Watts faces obvious stumbling blocks such as cost and content.

Industry sources cited by the Post suggest it might cost at least $100 million to get such a network off the ground and then cost an additional $7 million per hour of original programming. There is also the problem of finding quality talent not already locked into a contract elsewhere.

Currently, black cable channels such as TV One and BET are largely devoid of news programming. BET had a nightly newscast that was canceled years ago. BET President and CEO Debra Lee said at the time: “With 24-hour news networks and everyone getting news off the Internet, our audience doesn’t want to wait until 11:00 p.m. to find out what the news is.”

Commenting on the Watts idea, Mark Jurkowitz of the Project for Excellence in Journalism suggested to the Post: “The question is, could it work on a regular basis?” Likewise, Marc Krein, an associate professor of journalism and broadcasting at Oklahoma State University and a veteran of the now-defunct Major Broadcasting Cable Network, told The Oklahoman: “I also question whether a whole network needs to be dedicated to it or whether some of these other networks can dedicate some specialized programming.”

Why do it at all? Spinning the news on a black fulcrum is too costly—both in price and for race relations.