TV One Executive Sets Eyes on Competition, Quality

Entertainment pioneer Johnathan Rodgers is CEO of TV One, a cable channel aimed at African-American audiences. Prior to his current role, Rodgers held executive positions at the Discovery Channel and in network television. He talks about competing with BET and walking the line between what he describes as "responsible" and "thug" programming.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: a hot new shoe, but not for everybody. Native Americans hope a new sneaker designed just for them will help promote healthier lifestyles.

But first, we've been talking about the new fall television season this week. Advocacy groups have demanded for years that the networks create programming that better reflects America's racial and ethnic diversity. But that's been a frustrating fight. And to minority viewers, it often seems like each new season brings fewer, not more faces of color on the major networks.

In recent years, that's inspired people of color in the industry to create their own programming and to try to create their own networks. At TELL ME MORE, we're going to bring you a series of conversations from those entertainment pioneers.

We begin today with Johnathan Rodgers. He is the president and CEO of TV One, a network aimed at African-American audience. He joined us here in the studio. Mr. Rodgers, welcome.

Mr. JOHNATHAN RODGERS (President and Chief Executive Officer, TV One): I'm happy to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: Before you became a network executive, you were a print journalist. How did you get the journalism bug?

Mr. RODGERS: You know, I don't know how religious I am, but I do think it was a calling. I woke up one morning and wanted to know everything first, but then I also wanted to tell it first. And that seemed to be the great definition of a journalist. So starting in high school, I started pursuing writing and reporting. I went to college at the University of California and Berkeley. And by my junior year, I was an intern in New York at Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated.

MARTIN: Before we get into the broadcast side of it, I do want to ask about your stint at Sports Illustrated. Is it right that you were the first African-American journalist ever hired at Sports Illustrated? Is that right?

Mr. RODGERS: Yes, as the first writer. And let me just tell you, it was a great experience. You know, even then, you know, African-Americans were dominant in sports, but we didn't have any of the clout we currently have. And one of the great series I worked on at Sports Illustrated was an article we titled, "The Plight of the Black Athlete." And this was in the '60s and '70s, where most black athletes were afraid to speak up. This was only 20 years ago, 30 years ago.

MARTIN: People are literally afraid to talk about their life circumstances?

Mr. RODGERS: Absolutely. Fortunately, society has changed, times have changed, but this was a time when I first joined Sports Illustrated in 1968. This was a time in which the most powerful football conference, the Southeast Conference, which is down in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, were proud of the fact they had no blacks. I used to refer to it as popcorn football. No people of color at all, plain and simple.

MARTIN: And this was openly discussed. This was not secret stuff.

Mr. RODGERS: This was post-desegregation. So it was amazing, but it's also amazing to have seen the change in sports over the last four decades.

MARTIN: This whole question of the relationship that the storytellers should have with the subjects of those stories is still one that persists. There was this controversy over this animated public service ad that is running on your competitor, called "Read a Book."

Some people consider it completely rude and obscene, and it does a lot of cursing at it, even though there's sort of a cleaned-up version. And the argument is that this is very real. This is how people talk. And some say, look, you know, these African-American who were in the channels really should not be about the business of displaying what some consider the more negative aspects of the community, the sort of dysfunction and so forth. And they would argue that, you know, where is the critical distance? And if you're that close to your sources, can you maintain that critical distance?

Mr. RODGERS: Well, and again, I think you have to separate journalism from entertainment. And clearly what BET and TV One - we do is entertainment. In the same way that we should all be true to ourselves, I also believe you should be true to your audience, because white Americans can watch TNT or TBS or Lifetime or Oxygen. MTV and VH1, in my judgment, are worse - and I'll use the term worse - than BET is in terms of their display of human nature and of human beings. They just don't happen to all be black.

Going back to your journalism question, are we part of the story, or are we separating the story? I grew up under the guise of Edward R. Murrow. And Edward R. Murrow refer to documentaries as being a mirror on the society. That is the philosophy I have embedded into TV One. We're putting a mirror on our society, and we're controlling our own images. And the fact is, control is crucially important. When BET was sold and Bob Johnson sold BET to Viacom for $3 billion, that is the highest price a cable channel as ever been sold for. And I don't think any cable channel will ever - except for maybe ESPN - reach that high level.

MARTIN: How do you interpret that information, that price? What does that mean to you?

Mr. RODGERS: It means to me, on one hand, Bob Johnson did a marvelous job - as a businessman and as a person who understood the cable industry - of staying focused. Now, I yelled at him. You probably yelled at him, and everybody else yelled at him, but he was focused. I hope I can be as focused on my adult audience as he was on his young audience.

MARTIN: Yelled at him for what? Putting on trashy, booty-shaking videos and not…

Mr. RODGERS: Before I got to cable, I used to work in broadcast, and I used to work at CBS. And broadcasting, by definition, is broader based. I didn't understand cable, so I didn't understand why Bob couldn't do documentaries on BET or appropriate new shows on BET or have a balanced program. But now that I've been into cable business for 10 years, I understand you cannot do that and be successful.

MARTIN: You think that the criticism of BET is, by and large, unfair - as you know, because you live in the area as well - that there's a group that is now picketing the home of Deborah Lee, the COO of BET, saying that they want to take a stand against the kind of program that they think demeans African-Americans.

Mr. RODGERS: Yeah.

MARTIN: You think that's unfair?

Mr. RODGERS: I think it's unfair, because the pickets should be walking around the houses of the cable distributors and the satellite distributors. Bob tried for numerous years to get a second or a third channel. The cable industry wasn't supportive.

Now that there is an option, TV One, there still exists a few cable operators, however, who don't have us on. So all I really ask of the industry is that they give African-Americans choice. As long as BET was out there by themselves, yes, they deserved the pressure more because there was no other alternatives. But the fact is there should be other alternatives for African-Americans.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE. And we're talking to Johnathan Rodgers, president and CEO of the television network, TV One.

One of your new offerings for fall? TV One is offering some original series. You've got a cooking show on. You've got a show on with Michelle Singletary -who's also an NPR contributor - on personal finance, and got a new show coming up for fall from the so-called bad boy of radio, Michael Baisden. Let's hear a short clip.

(Soundbite of radio show, "Baisden After Dark")

Mr. MICHAEL BAISDEN (Host, "Baisden After Dark"): To be honest, family, let's get real about this. I we decided to be honest today, relationships would end overnight. I'm going to give you a perfect example. Now you all going to participate in this, right?

Unidentified Group: Yeah.

Mr. BAISDEN: I need you to participate. Now, by applause, ladies, how many y'all have been sexually dissatisfied in your relationship?

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You're laughing.

Mr. RODGERS: It's hilarious. "Baisden After Dark" is the show.

MARTIN: Baisden After…

Mr. RODGERS: B-A-D. Bad.

MARTIN: So I guess my question is, is sex really the key to success on cable?

Mr. RODGERS: Oh, I don't necessarily think so. But what I'd like about "Baisden After Dark" is for the first time in this country since Arsenio Hall, there will be a black figure in late-night television. And it's so different than his radio show, which is highly, highly popular.

MARTIN: I guess the question I would have is, is there really a dearth of African-American men speaking freely about sex in this society right now? It seems to me there's a lot for conversations on these topics, and I just wonder why is it sex seems to be such an important draw? And I do credit your point. Look, you have a lot of other programs. You do have, you know, Gavin, who's your…

Mr. RODGERS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ….I think, you know, one of your…

Mr. RODGERS: …is one of my sexy chefs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Your sexy chef.

(Soundbite of show, "Turn Up the Heat with G. Garvin")

Unidentified Woman: And then you have cook the crabmeat at (unintelligible).

Mr. G. GARVIN (Host, "Turn Up the Heat with G. Garvin"): The crab is already steamed. Olives?

Unidentified Man: Okay.

Mr. GARVIN: So now, look. See what we got in here?

Unidentified Woman: Uh-huh.

Mr. GARVIN: Okay.

Unidentified Woman: This is why cooking's sexy.

Mr. GARVIN: Yeah, this is nice. And this is good. I'm so sick of people eating like shredded this and shredded that and beating this…

Unidentified Woman: And then tossed salad. But seriously…

MARTIN: But he does cook clothed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But, I mean, some might argue - I'm not browbeating you.

Mr. RODGERS: Yes.

MARTIN: Some might argue you're kind of going down the same road that people criticize BET for.

Mr. RODGERS: Well, I don't know that conversation. Conversation with experts is the same road if you mean videos of scantily clad people, you know, shaking their booty. No, that's not what we do. We have conversations, and we have conversation with the experts. And sex is of the essence of "Baisden After Dark." The fact is, radio, I believe, is still the truest form of communication for African-Americans. And his show has been on the radio successfully for a number of years, and every barbershop and beauty shop I go to at three o'clock in the afternoon, his show was on.

Now, you'll say to some people - in fact, I said to my barber the other day - I said, we're thinking about bringing him to TV. Do you like him? He said, no. I said, then why did you listen to him every day? He said I don't want to miss what he has to say. So that's an element of television, is the surprise element.

But again, just think about this from this - my sociological point of view. A strong, black man with the freedom to say what he wants to on television. What I do is I look at ratings. African-Americans watch programs that have a number of African-Americans in them and are set in situations that we're familiar with.

The top 10 for African-Americans rarely matches the top 10 for the general market. So what we know is not only do African-Americans watch more television, we watch it differently. So as long as the networks keep putting one black person in each show, that is fine.

But that's not what our viewers want. Our viewers want to see us. Why are these reality shows - "Dancing with the Stars," "American Idol," or even Discovery's programming - getting higher ratings among African-Americans? Because it's real. We get to see ourselves as we really are, as opposed through the eyes of some writer, producer, director.

So we like "American Idol" because we think we have a chance to win. We didn't like "The Bachelor," because we knew we didn't have a chance to win. But in scripted programs, we are put in our roles. And again, when I talk about scripted program, I set aside, you know, "Grey's Anatomy," which is truly one of the great programs about us in real life. But there's just too few shows like that.

MARTIN: But does it - at the end of the day when - if you ever take a sort of a quiet moment to contemplate this, how do you feel about that? Does it make you feel that it's wonderful that you've got shows that are more diverse, scripted programming as well as reality? But at the end of the day, the industry is making a judgment that white viewers, who remain the majority, do not wish to be entertained by persons of color in lead roles.

Mr. RODGERS: And that is fine with me that I'm in this other business, and that's why you need companies like TV One.

MARTIN: But what about you as a citizen, as a human being, as a neighbor, as a person who's worked in the - in a diverse environment your entire life who's been a manager and a leader in mainstream organizations where you, you know, exerted a leadership? You're citizen, you live here. You go to Giant and you shop.

Mr. RODGERS: Yeah. You know, I guess I wish that we didn't need a TV One, but the fact is we do need a TV One. As much as I believe in diversity, I believe more in acculturation. I believe that our contributions to this society need to be maintained and cherished and honored. I heard a demographer who once say recently that, in a sense, you could divide the African-American population to half. The dividing line is about age 36.

The group under the age 36 is not part of the civil rights generation, and mostly don't even care about the civil rights generation. I think it's incumbent upon us to make sure they are aware. We brought "Roots" back on its 30th anniversary and put it on TV One, and the e-mail and letters we got about parents watching with their children was just moving to us. You know, the farther and farther slavery gets away from us - you know, I'm just concerned. We can't ever forget slavery.

MARTIN: If you had a chance to talk to Johnathan Rodgers, who graduated from Berkeley and got a Masters at Stanford, starting his career today, what would you tell him?

Mr. RODGERS: Get into ownership sooner. The key to life is what Cathy Hughes did and what her son Alfred Liggins is doing. We need to own in order to control. Nobody tells Cathy Hughes how to program her radio stations. You have to own it.

MARTIN: Johnathan Rodgers is the president and CEO of the cable TV channel, TV One. He was kind enough to join us here in the studio.

Mr. Rodgers, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. RODGERS: It's my pleasure.

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