Curtis Symonds, the Man Behind the HBCU Network
The passionate CEO expects network to reach 10 million
Curtis Symonds is the mastermind behind the soon-to-launch HBCU Network. The 55-year-old Central State University alumnus hopes to launch the 24-7, 365-day-a-year network exclusively dedicated to black colleges and universities to an audience of an estimated 10 million subscribers in at least 20 markets. The network plans to launch during Black History Month 2012.
“We’ll be headquartered in Atlanta and strategically based along the southern border,” said Symonds. “Everyone knows Atlanta and the Deep South is HBCU country.”
But if Symonds has his way, that territorial base may soon be expanding. Not only will the HBCU Network, which will be independently owned by his C3 Media founded with fellow cable industry execs Clint Evans and Candace Walker, be the first network of it's kind, it will also give the 105 HBCU institutions a level of exposure they’ve never seen before.
“Absolutely, there’s a lot of excitement for this,” said Symonds. “Not only will this vehicle be history making, it touches upon all the key criteria and demographics that execs typically look for in any business startup.”
But as Loop 21 recently discovered, the former BET and ESPN executive's plans hardly end there.
Loop 21: Where did the idea for a cable network targeting African-American college students and alums come from?
Curtis Symonds: As an HBCU alum and letterman, I’ve always known this was a niche market that was being underserved, but it goes deeper than that. HBCU alum's are some of the proudest people you’ll ever meet. I just felt it was time our children got to see themselves and our best institutions placed in the light in which they deserve. I worked 14 years at BET and six at ESPN and one of the things I learned was visibility was lacking for HBCU's. This will be an opportunity to highlight HBCU's 14- year heritage and provide leverage for their sustained growth and prosperity.
Loop 21: What will make the HBCU Network different from all the other black cable channels already on the airwaves?
Symonds: There is no place on television, nor has there ever been, that speaks to the black college experience, particularly from the HBCU lens the way this station will. We’ll be all about heritage and that gives us a huge window to fill. We plan to put the legacy of the HBCU experience on full blast, highlighting the social and cultural experiences of our children who learn there that benefits them for the rest of their lives.
Loop 21: So you don’t consider shows like BET’s College Hill to be an apt representation of the HBCU experience?
Symonds: That’s not the real culture. That was just some garbage BET put out there. There was never any mention of things like Hampton [University] having the largest NASA program in the country or North Carolina A&T [University] having one of the best engineering programs. This is our legacy and those are the kinds of things that are going on everyday on their campuses with our children. We want more of them to be able to see that.
Loop 21: What will be the actual programming breakdown and who should we expect to be a part of it?
Symonds: It’s an edu-tainment network that will be composed of about 28% sports, 21% educational content and about 14% entertainment. Lou Gossett Jr. and Blair Underwood have already signed on to teach a 10-week course entitled “Celebrity Professor,” where students will be able to pick their brains about their experiences. We’ll also have content aggregated from various colleges and universities that’ll include guest lectures, celebrity speakers and on-campus entertainment.
Loop 21: What kind of HBCU's sports can we expect to see?
Symonds: We’ve already signed a licensing agreement with ESPN allowing access to top games from all the conferences (Mid-Eastern, Southwestern, Southern and Central). We’ll have the best Division 1 and 11 matchups live every week. We’re looking to be the destination network for all 105 HBCU's.
Loop 21: What’s the financial arrangement you have with all the schools?
Symonds: As a collective, the schools involved will hold a 20% equity share in the network. (The network is said to be proposing a monthly 7.5-cent subscriber licensing fee). We plan to launch in about 20 footprint states and with about 10 million subscribers.
Loop 21: HBCU's have a vast and famous alumni base. How big of a role are you hoping alumni play in the network?
Symonds: Most definitely their input will be critical. People like Ed Bradley (Cheyney State University), Earl Graves (Morgan State University), Langston Hughes (Lincoln University) and even Oprah (Tennessee State University) for a time attended HBCU's. For our kids to simply be reminded of that already makes their affiliation a winning situation. Beyond that, we’re working on ways and open to any suggestions they may have to be even a bigger part of things.