Just as 2017 was beginning to wind down, at least three major events took place that potentially have enormous implications for the African American media and marketing ecosystem.
On Monday, Nov. 27, Meredith Corp., publishers of a host of general market heartland publications such as Better Homes & Gardens and Family Circle, announced it was purchasing Time, Inc. for $1.8 billion in cash. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t cause anyone to blink, except one of the titles in the Time, Inc. portfolio is Essence Communications. Essence of course is the publisher of Essence magazine, the primary magazine for Black women and the trailblazing Essence Festival.
There has been a lot of discussion about which titles might be shuttered when Meredith takes over, but in none of the public discussions has the status or fate of Essence even been mentioned. That’s because according to Essence sources, Essence is outside of the Meredith purchase. However, the magazine is still on the block which leaves the very critical question, who is looking to purchase it and how long can it remain on the block without a suitor?
In July 2017, Time CEO Rich Battista was quoted in WWD saying that Time Inc. “was looking for someone to purchase a majority share in Essence magazine … We want to unlock the value here. We think the best way to do that is to bring in a strategic partner with investment capital. We’re keeping an interest because we see real upside.”
The ideal scenario, of course, would be for Essence to return to being Black-owned. If not Black owned, then at the very least, a company or investors that understand the tremendous service and value Essence delivers to its audience.
It has always been expected within the circle of African American agency and media executives that Time would not keep Essence for long. After completing the full purchase in 2005, it was predicted that Essence would remain part of the Time, Inc. family for maybe five years. Clearly, those of us who made that prediction were wrong, and happy to be so.Essence managed to stay apart of the Time Inc portfolio for seven-going-on-eight years past that prediction.
The impending demise of Time, Inc. is due in large part to it not reading the tea leaves about the digital landscape and keeping pace with not only the marketplace but consumers. Essence is the only Time Inc. title that kept its finger on the pulse of its audience and tried to keep up — with no help, I might add — from Time Inc.
We can thank the #Blackgirlmagic of Michelle Ebanks and the lean editorial and sales teams in New York, Chicago and LA that work hard to keep readers and clients engaged with little support.
Tea Leaves will keep an eye on this as it continues to unfold. The African American community cannot afford to lose another important media channel.
In case you didn’t know, Essence Communications was founded in 1968 by Edward Lewis, Clarence O. Smith, Cecil Hollingsworth and Jonathan Blount. The first issue of Essence Magazine was published in May 1970. In 2000, Time Warner purchased 49 percent of Essence Communications and reserved the opportunity to purchase the remaining shares if they became available. In 2005, Time Warner purchased the remaining 51percent of Essence Communications.
Discovery Communications, Inc. took majority ownership of Oprah Winfrey’s cable network, OWN, by increasing its 50-percent stake by an additional 24.5percent. Winfrey will retain 25.5percent ownership of the network and will remain CEO until 2025.
What is significant about this?
OWN launched in 2011 and had its initial struggles like any network would. However, since then, through lots of trials and test runs, and partnering with Tyler Perry, Ava DuVernay and other Black program creators and producers, OWN has emerged as the leading network for African American women.
Partnering with Tyler Perry and leveraging his following put the network in the black, literally.
The network has now developed a track record for producing and delivering a handful of high quality and well written scripted series that now represent three of the top 10 programs on ad-supported cable based on Nielsen data for total viewers — The Haves and Have Nots”, “Greenleaf”, “Queen Sugar”.
While low rated compared to “Empire,” for instance, the programs on OWN demonstrate that African American women viewers have a wider preference in programming than the unflattering representations of reality TV. Of course, OWN is not without its contribution to ridiculous TV either. But at least it’s counter-balanced with intelligent fare.
Discovery’s increased stake now makes OWN the third TV network targeted to African Americans that is majority owned by a white corporation; BET and Centric (Viacom) and Bounce (Scripps). Only BET and OWN have African American executives leading their respective ventures.
It also means that three of the most important media brands programming to African American audiences (Essence, BET and OWN) are not really controlled by people vested in the accurate and uplifting telling of our stories.
On Dec. 6, TV One announced it was canceling the daily morning news and information show “NewsOne Now” with Roland Martin due to budget cuts.
This budget cutting measure underscores the tenuous predicament of black media. Arguably the most important show on TV as the only news and information show specifically targeted to African American audiences, its existence was not influenced or swayed by the unique importance the show had.
At a time when our community is under siege from a number of fronts, we could count on Roland to ask the hard questions and dig deep to help us understand the real issues and put it in a context for everyday people to absorb. No other program, no matter how committed they claim to be to justice and fairness, can deliver on that the way Roland Martin can. The community is now left unguarded and even more vulnerable.
Morning radio host Tom Joyner put it this way after calling for a boycott of the network. “It always comes down to money. All of television is suffering now, but to heal the many issues by sacrificing your community is not the answer.”
Couldn’t agree with you more Tom, but the network’s carefully worded statement telegraphed the real issue: “Despite the network’s commitment and investment, ‘NewsOne Now’ did not gain traction with advertisers and viewers. . . .”
Notice who is listed first as the program not gaining traction with. Programs like this are never ratings juggernauts, but that doesn’t make them less important. But African American TV viewers carry some blame here too. Twenty times more people watch “Empire” than watch “NewsOne Now”. Rupert Murdoch and 20th Century Fox are so thrilled about that, they produced another show to accompany “Empire” and are skipping double time all the way to the bank.
It has an economic ripple effect. Surely you don’t think the networks that are airing “Real Housewives” and “Love and Hip Hop” are doing so because they have your best interests at heart. They do it because they know you will turn it on and tweet about it, social chat about it, and all of that interaction is tantamount to the cash register ringing.
Black folks’ guilty pleasure is making white-owned media rich as all get out while Black media is literally dying on the vine. That’s another post.
All of this makes for a rather murky 2018 landscape for Black media especially given that the world’s No. 1 advertiser has declared that African American audiences are extremely important to them and they will be relying on the dedicated media that serves this consumer to revitalize their eroding market share.
Media Tea Leaves will take a deeper dive into this in an upcoming post.
Until next post, Happy New Year to you and yours. May 2018 bring you all of the success, love, joy and laughter you can receive and more.
This article was originally published on Media Tea Leaves, a blog offering commentary and analysis of the advertising and marketing ecosystem and the implications for African American media companies, agencies and the brands that need to connect with this consumer segment. It is reposted here with the permission of the author, Deborah Gray-Young.