He Likes a Challenge

TV One is a labor of love for entrepreneurial Johnathan Rodgers

Of all the roles he has played as a television executive, Johnathan Rodgers is partial to one: “network builder.” It is a part he has played for about the last decade in the world of cable television.

Three years ago, Rodgers walked away from the Discovery Networks, where he was president of an organization he helped build up to 11 channels. He pledged that his next gig would be entrepreneurial. “I'd rather be with a startup or a fixer-upper,” he said at the time.

He got what he wanted. As president of TV One, a 16-month-old cable channel for African-American adults, Rodgers faces a daunting but exciting task: to craft a brand-new entertainment service and get it distributed on cable and satellite systems at a time when it is not easy to get a channel launched—and after giving BET, the only broadly distributed black network, about a 24-year head start.

On the cable dial, Rodgers has often lamented, there are entertainment services for adults, like USA Network and Lifetime, and there is BET, which appeals to the hip-hop generation of African-American youths.

But African-Americans in the 25-54 demo, he says, have had nowhere to go. Enter TV One. The channel was conceived as an adult alternative to—rather than a direct competitor of—BET, offering a mix of acquired programming.

With Rodgers at the helm, TV One is backed by minority-owned radio company Radio One and cable giant Comcast. The two companies, along with four investment banks, have committed $130 million in funds for the network's first four years. Initially, TV One was angling to get into the top 20 markets, where more than half of African-Americans reside. Rodgers has expanded that vision. He now wants the channel to be carried in the top 60 markets, where 90% of African-Americans live. So far, TV One has 20 million subscribers in nine of the top 10 TV markets and 24 of the top 60.

Comcast has helped advance Rodgers' goal. It is the largest cable operator in many of the top-market cities—including Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore and Detroit—and has offered TV One a coveted analog-cable slot.

Rodgers gets high marks from Alfred C. Liggins III, president/CEO of Radio One. “Johnathan loves TV. He consumes the medium. He also understands how to target and capture and market to a specific niche audience. Those are skills he learned first as a local broadcaster, programming dayparts to attract specific audiences, and then [through] his cable experience at Discovery.”

In his six-year tenure at Discovery, Rodgers launched such channels as the Discovery Health Channel and expanded distribution for Animal Planet and Travel Channel. He also had a hand in hit shows like TLC's Trading Spaces and Discovery Channel documentaries Walking With Dinosaurs and Raising the Mammoth.

Discovery was Rodgers' first turn in the cable business. He spent 20 years at CBS, working his way up its station ladder.

Being a TV executive was not his intended path, though. After journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley, Rodgers worked in print media at Sports Illustrated and Newsweek.

His first TV job was at a station in Cleveland. When his girlfriend (and future wife), Royal Kennedy, got a job in Chicago at NBC's WMAQ, Rodgers followed. He joined Chicago's CBS station, WBBM, as assistant news director—his first of many management positions. Rodgers climbed the ranks to general manager and moved over to the corporate side, running the CBS station group. He was also an executive producer for CBS News.

By many accounts, Rodgers could have retired when he left CBS in 1996 with a comfortable payout. Instead, he jumped into the burgeoning cable industry. It was Discovery's still-growing status that attracted him. “When I got here, we had two channels, and the value was $1 billion,” says Rodgers. “When I left, they had 11 channels, and the value was $20 billion.”

TV One was hardly in Discovery's league, but that was exactly what drew Rodgers in.

Liggins envisioned a TV operation to complement the company's radio assets, but he needed someone with TV expertise. When he explained that to legendary radio producer Quincy Jones, the story goes, Jones turned him on to Rodgers.

Now, after years in the boardroom, Rodgers was back in editing suites and sales meetings. Selling the network to cable and satellite companies, he says, has been easier than he expected. “When we talk about TV One, they get it right away,” Rodgers explains. “They recognize that this audience is loyal customers and great TV viewers, and they have not had choice on the dial.”

Rodgers credits many seasoned broadcast and cable executives for guiding his career, from CBS patriarch William Paley to Discovery founder John Hendricks and CEO Judith McHale. Now at TV One, Rodgers collaborates with Liggins and Comcast's top-flight execs, like CEO Brian Roberts, COO Steve Burke and head of content development Amy Banse.

Rodgers also makes it a priority to give back to nonprofit and business organizations. He is on the boards of the Children's Defense Fund and the Peabody Awards, and he is a trustee of the University of California (Berkeley) Foundation. He also serves on the Board of Directors of the Procter & Gamble Co. and the NCTA.

These days, Rodgers is obviously delighted at how viewers have embraced TV One. But it is too soon for the new network to subscribe to Nielsen ratings, so Rodgers relies on anecdotal feedback.

Several viewers, he says, have said that, after watching TV One at night, they tune in the next morning—just to make sure the network is still there.

Says Rodgers, “They can't believe that, at long last, we finally have a channel like this, for them.”