HBCU Television Network Eyes March Launch

FAIRFAX, Va. — For longtime cable television executive Curtis Symonds, launching the HBCU Network as a cable television channel represents the pinnacle of a lifelong association with historically Black institutions. A graduate of Central State University, Symonds grew up on the historically Black Ohio campus because his mother was on the faculty. She “brought me over when I was 2 years old on the campus at CSU, and she taught there for 40 years,” Symonds says.

With extensive marketing experience from stints at Black Entertainment Television and ESPN, Symonds, who is the HBCU Network CEO, is leading a team of cable executives working to get the Atlanta-based network off the ground next month. In addition to offering the nation’s 105 HBCUs a television network exclusively devoted to showcasing these schools, the HBCU Network is setting aside 20 percent of the channel’s equity to be collectively shared by all the HBCUs.

The new network also is reaching out to HBCUs, particularly those that own television stations, to enlist them as programming partners to develop original shows for the channel. “The one thing that many of the schools are concerned about, and we are really working with them on that, is maintaining their brands. They want to make sure that their brands do not get blemished in any kind of way,” Symonds says.

Those interested in learning about the channel and watching programs next month can access the HBCU Network at http://HBCUnetwork.com.

DI: Why have you developed the HBCU Network?

CS: Well, I guess it started really a long time (ago) for me. I grew up on the campus of Central State University. And over those 30-some years that I grew up at Central State, I really had a great experience of understanding the importance of historically Black colleges and what it means to our community. (I know) what it means to the development of the character of many African-American females and males, and I really did not want to see this trail begin to start shrinking.

I wanted to create a network for two reasons. Number one (is) to create more exposure for historically Black colleges. Number two (is) to help African-American females and males at a younger age to understand the value of historically Black colleges.

Now you have the creation of the SEC channel. You have the Big 10 channel. ESPN just gave $300 million to (The) University of Texas to create the Longhorn channel, and here you have (more than 150 years) of great African-American colleges that can’t get a channel.

So that’s why I believe it’s very important that we create this channel to begin to start educating our young people on not only just the sports side, but also the educational side of it.

DI: What will viewers see with the launch?

CS: My initial thinking was to do the basics, (which means getting) into cable (TV markets) and try to basically grow. I’m now looking at streaming the programming…to our website. (We will) just start working the social media route and begin to create the brand, (and) basically giving the people a place to see it.

Get (our potential audience) a destination that they know they can find HBCU sports, HBCU education (programming), HBCU shows, (and) things that relate to HBCUs. Soft launch it in (March), and, by September this year, I certainly hope to be (available in) 6 to 8 million homes and then grow it out from there over the next five years.

Our concept is to go after the HBCU markets first and then grow the alumni base, because the alumni (of) HBCUs are all over the country. So we’re hoping that the alumni base begins pushing the cable operators and the satellite guys to really pick this thing up. I think if we’re able to grow the network to 50 million homes over the next five to six years, that’s a great number in today’s business. At this point, we hope to try to be in at least three or four (cable) markets by the time we launch.

DI: In addition to basketball and other sporting events, can you describe the programming the network has in store?

CS: We’ll have (an) alumni show. We’ll have a show that will be called “Celebrity Professor.” We’re asking people like Lou Gossett, Cuba Gooding, Common, (and) Chris Martin from Kid ’N Play because he’s now teaching down in Florida at Florida A&M. So in (this concept), we want to have these guys come and talk about different things and help educate the young people on different things that (are) their specialty.

We hope to have a financial (advice show), definitely a health show. We want to target the mothers. So we will do things during the day that will have programs targeted more to women.

A lot of the programming also will be (targeted) at the students. I’m trying to drive more students to this network because I believe that we’ve got to be smart with our programming (and) use all the different (mobile computing) apps. The audience that I’m going after, this college audience, could see this network from a social media (perspective). So the students will have a lot of involvement trying to help us program the network. D