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Making an 'Impact' on TV
By Amy Martinez, Palm Beach Post Staff
Sunday, April 21, 2002
STUART -- What in the world does one man do when he already has the beyond-your-wildest-dreams house, his and hers Bentleys, private jet planes, and a professional reputation that sends chills up his adversaries' spines?
What does he do when his law firm is taking on Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Bridgestone/Firestone and Motorola, as well as helping with a massive class-action lawsuit against the federal government for slavery reparations?
What next for a man who lives larger than whole towns?
Run for the U.S. Senate? Governor? Retire to a private island and golf from dawn to dusk?
No thanks, says Willie Edward Gary, 54. He wants an audience. A big audience.
So he has started his own television network, Major Broadcasting Cable, believed to be the nation's only black-owned cable network, and is the host of his own weekly, half-hour talk show, Spiritual Impact.
Gary took time out recently in Stuart to talk about MBC, his newest and "most exciting" challenge and, possibly, his next big success story. After three years, nearly 17 million homes in more than 1,200 cities get MBC, including digital cable subscribers in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast.
"All the hard work and the sleepless nights are starting to pay off," he said. "We have demonstrated to the world that this network is to be reckoned with."
It's showtime for Gary, but not, he says, for fame or personal riches. The stocky and dynamic litigator, once a dirt-poor boy in Indiantown, is taking on cable "to make a difference."
Gary said he wants to give black families an alternative -- specifically, a Christian alternative -- to the sex and violence that dominate cable TV. His vision is to improve race relations, bring families closer together and encourage kids to go to college.
"One day, we're going to give $50 million a year to the United Negro College Fund. That's the driving force behind this network," he said.
The challenge for Gary and MBC: Can a network offering no sex or violence or curse words survive?
MBC just recently began to break even and is expected to turn a profit in 18 months, he said. Still, the verdict is out on whether MBC can succeed on its own terms.
Even Gary conceded, "We're not making money."
It is not known how much MBC has lost because the network is privately held and does not disclose details of its financial picture. Gary said he invests $1 million of his own money each month and has helped raise more than $100 million in three years. The network takes in nearly $600,000 a month in advertising, he says.
Tough challenges aheadTo make money and survive,
Atlanta-based MBC will have to convince more advertisers it
can attract viewers with wholesome family programming.
Alfred Edmond Jr., editor of Black Enterprise magazine in New York, wishes MBC well, but he warns that it faces some tough challenges, not least of all, modern tastes.
Gary's network is 180 degrees from the Viacom-owned Black Entertainment Television, which has succeeded largely with sexually suggestive music videos and profanity-laced comedy shows. No one's sure whether there's enough demand for Gary's vision, Edmond said.
"I've talked to people who won't allow their children to watch BET or are uncomfortable with it. The question is, are there enough people like that to sustain a cable TV network?" Edmond said.
"We all say we want better programming, but the reality is, someone's watching BET's videos," he said.
MBC is described as a black version of West Palm Beach-based Pax TV, the feel-good family network founded in 1998 by Lowell "Bud" Paxson. Like MBC, Pax has struggled to attract viewers to its G-rated fare. (Pax declined to comment for this story; BET did not return phone calls.)
Among the seven broadcast networks tracked by Nielsen Media Research, Pax consistently ranks last. Only 0.8 percent of homes with TVs tuned in to Pax during the first week of April, well behind the sixth-ranked WB, at 2.1 percent. NBC and CBS led the pack with respective viewerships of 8.3 percent and 8.2 percent. (Nielsen does not track MBC viewers.)
"All the advertisers tell you they want less violence, less gratuitous sex, but the point is, you have to go with what works," said Bishop Cheen, a media analyst with Wachovia Securities in Charlotte, N.C.
Finding what works takes time and money, Cheen said. Original programming is expensive to produce, and syndicated reruns that fit the criteria of no sex and violence are hard to come by.
Cheen estimates a startup network needs at least $100 million in its first two years. One reason is the growing number of broadcast and, especially, cable networks.
There are 200 more networks than cable companies have room for, Cheen said, making it increasingly difficult to first, get a channel, and second, attract viewers.
That's why MBC is available locally only on digital systems, which have more channel capacity than the old analog systems. Elsewhere, MBC can be seen on analog cable through a partnership with historically black colleges to provide free programming.
Since the network's launch, Gary, a loyal Democratic money-raiser, has persuaded members of the Congressional Black Caucus and even Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, to write letters on MBC's behalf to cable companies.
Would he like MBC to be more available on analog cable? "Obviously," he said. "But we're content with crawling before we walk. This is a tough business, 50 times tougher than the law."
Big-name advertisersAdvertisers on MBC include
Coca-Cola, UPS, Verizon and the sugar substitute Equal. Gary
said they're drawn to the network not only because of its
audience -- blacks have $500 billion in disposable income and
tend to watch more TV than other groups -- but also because of
its mission. Advertisers want to be part of something that's
positive rather than negative, he said.
Plus, it doesn't hurt that Gary often makes the final sales pitch himself. "Once I get in there, no one makes their case better than Willie Gary," he said. "I don't take 'no' for an answer."
Gary launched MBC in November 1998, just three months after Marlon Jackson of Jackson Five fame and businessman Alvin James approached him with the idea. The more Gary sought advice from industry executives who insisted it would never work, the more determined he became. It reminded him, he said, of the skeptics who once warned him Stuart was no place for a black lawyer, much less the son of a migrant farm worker.
"I never even once thought about failure. That's the honest truth," he said.
Soon, Gary signed up former boxing champ Evander Holyfield and former baseball great Cecil Fielder as major investors, and MBC went on the air in 3 million homes with satellite dishes. A year later, Mobile, Ala., became its first cable market. Local cable companies Adelphia and AT&T picked it up in December. Other markets include Atlanta, Detroit and San Francisco.
Chuck Blaine, governmental affairs director for Adelphia in Riviera Beach, said MBC helps the cable company achieve its diversity goals. "There's not much out there for black audiences. BET and MBC are all that's available to us," he said.
Adelphia did not put MBC on its analog systems, he said, because the demand simply is not there. "This is a brand new fledgling" network, he said, adding that the distinction between analog and digital won't always matter. "Probably within the next four to five years, it will all be digital anyway."
MBC's programming features live coverage of black college sports, gospel videos and black movie classics. In addition to Gary's Spiritual Impact, Fielder hosts a talk show called Sports Lifestyles with guests such as basketball star Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers and baseball's Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees. A regular news broadcast is in the works.
Gary has attracted to his show radio personality Tom Joyner, former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, gospel singer Howard Hewitt and minister Bernice King, the youngest daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Guests are asked about their relationships with God and the challenges they overcame to be successful.
Gary signs off, "Tough times don't last, but tough people do."
To promote the network, Gary appeared with Pat Robertson on the 700 Club in February and recently met with the Rev. Jerry Falwell. For those who might criticize his dealings with two of America's most socially conservative religious leaders, Gary says it's all part of his effort to improve race relations.
"I don't know a person in this world whom Dr. King would not have reached out to," he said. "Do we have differences in opinion? Yes. I'm trying to bring everyone together, and it's hard."
'Getting better day by day'Travis Mitchell, MBC's
executive vice president of operations, predicts MBC will
reach 40 million homes by the end of the year, then 80 million
by 2004. That would give the network $2 billion to $3 billion
in market value and more than $150 million in annual revenue,
"It has some quality programming, and it's getting better day by day," said Stuart orthodontist William Bryant, who invested an undisclosed amount in MBC three years ago, after Gary approached him. "BET is good, but we have purposely gone to programming that any church would feel good about."
As for his investment, Bryant said he's happy regardless of whether it pays off.
"It would be nice to have something to show for it, but the main thing I'm concerned about is progress. I feel better than I did last year, and the year before that, and the year before that."
West Palm Beach lawyer T.J. Cunningham Sr., a longtime friend of Gary's who also invested an undisclosed sum three years ago, said, "We don't think in terms of monetary returns, even though that's a part of the program, too. The kind of returns we're most pleased with is the positive effect it has on the youth."
Gary is so intent on making MBC a profitable business that he shrugs off any suggestion he ought to be tending to his law practice instead.
"I've tried enough cases. This is my main focus now," he said.
He estimates he gives 75 percent of his time to MBC, and the rest to law. With 37 lawyers and 150 employees, his Stuart law firm no longer needs his full attention, he said.
"This legal machine runs not only because we have a great founder and senior partner, but also because we have great lawyers," said Lorenzo Williams, a longtime partner in the firm and MBC investor. "The law firm is in good hands under Willie's stewardship.
"But don't let him kid you," Williams said. "He still has his eye on his golden goose -- that's his law firm."
Conceivably, MBC could help Gary attract new clients to the firm by raising his national profile, but that hasn't happened yet, and besides, that's not the direction he's going.
"We had 7,000 clients when we started MBC, and we have 7,000 clients now," Gary said. "We built the law firm, and the law firm built MBC."