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TV with soul 

Atlanta network targets black audience with family values

Two sides of the many facets of African-American culture currently stand in sharp contrast. One is the prominent, easily misunderstood face of hip-hop, which skews young and stands open to charges of glorifying irresponsible sex and the violent gestures of gangsta rap.

The other voice, quiet but increasingly heard, aims at a demographic that's older and more middle class. You see this audience's considerable buying power in the success of novelists like Terry McMillan or in hit films such as Soul Food, The Best Man and The Brothers.

The latter is the constituency sought by the Major Broadcast Cable (MBC) Network, Atlanta's nascent cable channel devoted to family values in urban programming. Operating from a nondescript studio space on Atlanta's west side, MBC bills itself as "a place to come home to" for African-American audiences seeking shows with more uplifting messages.

CEO Alvin T. James founded the

channel with Marlon Jackson (formerly

of the Jackson 5) in 1998. "We did a tremendous amount of research ... and discovered a need and audience for family-

oriented programs. We're similar to what you see on the Fox Family Network or Pax,

only with more of an urban perspective," says James.

Since 1999, MBC has worked to develop a breadth of programming, including "I Spy" reruns and African-American-themed movies (including The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and The Paul Robeson Story), college basketball and children's shows like the old "Harlem Globetrotters" and "Jackson 5" cartoons.

The channel also is creating a variety of African-American based news, talk and informational series, many of which originate in Atlanta. "Save Our Streets," hosted by Tim Reid of "WKRP in Cincinnati," salutes the efforts of ordinary people to rid their communities of crime. Gospel singer Vickie Winnans hosts the gospel music video program "Video Praise," while "Urban AltarNet" is described as a "hip-hop gospel show." "Heavenly Laughter" showcases gospel and contemporary

comedians.

Two members of MBC's board of directors (which includes Evander Holyfield) have their own shows.

Willie E. Gary, high-profile attorney and chairman of the board, hosts the faith-themed talk show "Spiritual Impact," while vice chairman and former baseball all-star Cecil G. Fielder hosts "Sports Lifestyles," a kind of "Lifestyles of the

Rich and Famous" for athletes. "Spiritual Impact" and the medical-issue program "Health for the Nation" each recently

won Telly Awards, given to non-network TV productions.

The channel has a long-term goal of developing and airing the kind of programming you can find on a traditional television network. "We want to do sitcoms, we want to produce our own movies, we want all of that," says MBC publicist Jamie Carlington. "We're in negotiations with entertainers for situation comedy ideas

that fall in line with our goals as a family-oriented channel."

MBC reaches about 11 million homes nationwide, primarily in the Northeast, but it's making inroads in such Western states as California, Nevada and Utah. About 100,000 Atlantans receive the channel as subscribers to the AT&T Broadband digital cable "family pack."

When Robert Johnson sold Black Entertainment Television (BET) to media conglomerate Viacom in November 2000, MBC became the only African-American-owned network providing programming. "That gives us a unique opportunity to take advantage of their good fortune," James says. "For Viacom to pay $1 billion for BET has enhanced our ability to position ourselves as a business. The advertising

community is starting to put a higher value on the African-American community," a group with purchasing power of nearly a half-trillion dollars a year. (MBC's main advertisers include Coke and Pepsi.)

James hopes that MBC will reach more than 13 million homes by the end of 2001 and that the grassroots efforts of civic and religious organizations will encourage cable carriers to add MBC to their offerings. It helps that as cable carriers convert from analog to digital systems, more channels come available. "The digital rollout is doubling cable capacity, and we're piggybacking on the digital revolution."

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