On Sept. 26, a new black network, Bounce TV, launched showing an old Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Nipsey Russell movie, The Wiz. Bounce did not attract much attention because Bounce is available only via over-the-air digital television. While television viewers overwhelmingly receive their TV signals via cable or satellite, the FCC has mandated that new televisions be equipped with digital over-the-air tuners, through which users can watch traditional networks as well as some new channels. And it's all free.
That's how I encountered Bounce. Our household long ago abandoned cable for an ever-widening array of free or moderately priced programming sources using TV or computers that include not only over-the-air digital but also Hulu, Netflix or AT&T U-verse. As I was watching television on a digital channel one afternoon, an ad for Bounce popped up: There were Andrew Young, Martin Luther King III and others on the screen declaring "TV our way" and announcing that Bounce would soon be on the air.
Few would disagree that despite the steady, though slow, integration of blacks into mainstream shows, television, like Hollywood, remains pretty much a wasteland for blacks, Latinos and others (and a good case can be made that it does serious mind damage to whites, too).
Everything Old Is New Again?
I was eager to embrace Bounce. A few days of watching, however, led me to the conclusion that it is bouncing in — to be kind — an uncertain direction. Reruns of the old Soul Train music-and-dance show, Backstage Pass and the long-running syndicated show Inside the Game, about black sports at HBCUs, are in the schedule.
Movies form the heart of Bounce's programming. Its lineup — which includes the Mr. T vehicle Straight Line, Mariah Carey's Glitter, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Mo' Better Blues, Black Gunn, Walk, Far From Heaven, Sunset Park, Stir Crazy, Another You and Glory — mostly falls short of fulfilling the promise of "blockbuster hits" and "classic favorites." You could argue that the nonblack Scarface or any Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry film was a bigger hit among black people than some of these films.
Targetmarketnews.com, which follows black trends, reports that Bounce has made deals with NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution, Sony Pictures Television, Codeblack Entertainment and Image Entertainment to acquire TV rights to 400 African-American-oriented films. The only source of original content on Bounce will be broadcasts of Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association football and basketball games.
Old Judge Hatchett shows are offered, too, and while in my quirky way I actually like her courtroom judicial melodramas, I don't have to go to Bounce TV to see her.
I note this with disappointment, but what was striking about the debut of Bounce Television, and what remains true almost two months after its launch, is its total lack of creativity. Like BET and TV One — although both established networks produce far more original shows than Bounce — it has opted for the easy route. And while that makes a certain kind of business sense, it is hardly TV the way we want it. It is, instead, TV the way it has always been, albeit in blackface.
In Search of a Key Demographic
The network aims at the 25- to 54-year-old age group, a range that is attractive to advertisers, especially if the network attracts black males. Bounce's executive vice president of distribution, Jeff Wolf, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the network is deliberately being slow and cautious. "This is a very difficult [broadcast] space, and we're the last ones in," he said. "We have a long way to really build this out."
None of the 30- and 40-somethings I recently asked at a Jacksonville, Fla., hangout had heard of Bounce. Several remembered seeing The Wiz "when I was a kid."
Atlantans form the key core of Bounce's founders and financial backers. They include former United Nations Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young as well as his son Andrew "Bo" Young III. Martin Luther King III is also a founder, as are Rainforest Films co-founders Rob Hardy and Will Packer.
A large question looms over the future this group envisions and is directly related to the lack of creativity they seem to embody. With so much that has previously been done available on mainstream and already existing black-targeted cable channels, why bother with Bounce unless they are going to offer something original?
Starz in Black, for example, available through satellite or cable TV, is a premium channel owned by the Starz Entertainment Group that targets a black audience with black movies. These, too, are necessarily reruns. The channel also offers film reviews.
It is worth noting that in the channel's original incarnation, Starz partnered with BET and called it BET Movie Starz. BET founder Robert Johnson, who at first thought he could make money with original and educational programming, concluded that he could not and sold BET to Viacom. In terms of movies, there does not seem to be a great difference between Starz in Black and Bounce, except that Bounce is free.
As for BET, it is arguably more mature than Starz and certainly more mature than the brand-new Bounce. Despite its reputation for offensive hip-hop music videos, its programming these days offers reruns like Everybody Hates Chris, Girlfriends and The Bernie Mac Show and some original programming such as reality show Toya: a Family Affair, which chronicles the life of rapper Lil Wayne's ex-wife. BET also produces some live shows, including the wildly popular annual BET Awards, and offers some news, of course.
TV One was established in direct reaction to what were considered the negative stereotypes of black people on BET. Like its predecessor, TV One has ramped up the original programming recently, with series such as Unsung, which highlights entertainers who haven't received a lot of recognition. It also offers old black series, some of which really are "classics." Among them: Living Single, A Different World, The Jeffersons and Good Times.
The Outposts of Originality
Of all the black channels available, the Africa Channel is the most interesting because what it offers is unavailable anywhere else: a wide variety of music and concerts from Africa and, on Thursdays and Saturdays, a solid hour of news and information from the continent. It also produces South Africa's most popular talk show: Conversations With Felicia, hosted by Felicia Mabuza-Suttle.
Aside from the fact that it is free, what does the rerun-oriented Bounce offer that this array does not?
There is one arena that none of these black channels has entered. The era we are in now has seen a tremendous burst of young black creativity in digital and film media. MyCulture.tv, blip.tv and Vimeo are among many mainstream, Web-based video-sharing sources for films made by young people — some quite good. In addition, a significant and easy-to-reach source for creative filmmaking from African Americans is the National Black Programming Consortium.
I long ago left the 25- to 54-year-old age cohort, so when I say that Bounce TV's biggest flaw is how uninteresting it is, that may mean nothing in the advertising-numbers game that defines television in the U.S. Yet despite my disappointment in what I have seen so far, I hope the network will last long enough for me to come back to it in a year or so to see if it has made its way to a more original and creative television landscape.
Charles E. Cobb Jr., a journalist, is author of On the Road to Freedom: a Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail.