Call it the Obama Effect. Or the Tyler Factor.
Is the hottest niche audience middle-aged African Americans? Viacom Inc. is betting yes as its Black Entertainment Television Group is launching Centric, a cable channel aimed at that demographic.
In making the announcement, BET Chief Executive Debra Lee said that in light of the "historic change our country has experienced, this is the perfect time for BET Networks to reexamine where we are as a company and what we can be for our audience."
Of course, another factor might be TV One, the network already targeting that audience that is majority owned by cable giant Comcast Corp. and Radio One and reaches almost 50 million homes. Time Warner Inc.'s TBS has also grabbed a big chunk of that audience with its Tyler Perry shows "House of Payne" and "Meet the Browns."
TV One, not surprisingly, said Centric was validation of its strategy.
"We've always said that the African American viewing community is so large and diverse that there is probably room for three or four cable channels in the space. I guess they were just waiting for us to prove the case," said TV One Chief Executive Johnathan Rodgers.
BET said it expected to launch Centric in the fourth quarter of this year in about 45 million homes. That is an ambitious number, and to get there BET is likely to close its jazz channel, BET J, although the company declined to confirm that that was the plan.
For BET, the move is the latest in an effort to rebrand itself as a more serious programmer. For years, the cable network took heat for its steady diet of racy rap videos and a dearth of public affairs programming.
BET unveiled a handful of shows in development for Centric that, at first glance, don't seem aimed at the middle-aged demographic the network is going after. One show, "Keeping Up With the Joneses," will track high society in Houston, and another, "Model City," is about young male models trying to make it in New York.
BET parent Viacom, which also owns MTV, VH1, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon, has endured a tough year as ratings at many of its channels have fallen and the ad market has been hard hit by the economy. BET says its first quarter has bucked that trend, however, with a 10% gain in viewers.