Startup Hip Hop Channel Planning August Debut

By DARRELL SATZMAN
Staff Reporter

Given an alternative, Steve Rifkind believes a new generation of music fans doesn't really want its MTV, or its BET for that matter.

Rifkind, a New York-bred music and marketing impresario whose clients have ranged from Nike and Levi's to the Wu Tang Clan, is the creative force behind a new cable channel slated to debut in August that will be devoted to hip-hop music and urban trends.

The focus will be on hip-hop music and street chic even though much of that terrain is already covered by industry leaders MTV and BET.

"Nothing against (MTV and BET), but they have gotten so big and so corporate that they are not in touch with their audience," Rifkind said. "There's a need for a fill-in channel that promotes lifestyles."

The new channel, NEXT tv, is backed by Vertical Media Holdings, an offshoot of Beverly Hills venture capital firm Round One Investments, whose investors include Michael Milken, heirs of meat company founder Oscar Mayer, and Dale Jensen, a software mogul who is part owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team, said John Robison, a partner in Round One and chairman of Vertical Media Holdings.

For now, many specifics about the new channel are a mystery. NEXT tv, based in Los Angeles, recently purchased a transponder in Texas but does not own a programming library. The fledgling company consists primarily of Rifkind's 20-person marketing firm, Steven Rifkind Co., which is being absorbed into Vertical Media Holdings. Rifkind, 40, who founded hip-hop label Loud Records in 1992 (the company is now part of Sony's Columbia Music), will likely leave his position with Loud, he said.

Without limited broadcast infrastructure, Robison said the company is facilitating its launch by buying out an unidentified cable company. The deal guarantees immediate carriage in between 8 million and 10 million households in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. Detroit and other markets, Robison said. But he wouldn't say which company is being bought and which cable systems will carry the channel.

Street smarts

Even with 10 million households, NEXT tv would begin life deep in the shadows of MTV and BET, which are the most popular choices for hip-hop and rap music videos. MTV and BET, both owned by Viacom Inc., reach 84 million and 73 million U.S. households, respectively, and enjoy massive brand recognition, a key ingredient for success on the increasingly cluttered cable landscape.

Michele Dix, vice president of music and talent programming for MTV Networks, said that in addition to running blocks of hip-hop music video, programming on both MTV and MTV2 is sprinkled throughout with hip-hop music and culture.

"We know our audience has a huge appetite for hip-hop music, hip-hop stars and hip-hop attitude," Dix said.

Jensen said Viacom's stations have watered down their hip-hop content in attempt to reach as wide an audience as possible.

"We think this is an area that is severely underserved. It's a great niche," he said.

The target demographic is 12 to 34 year olds, and the programming will be a mix of music videos and lifestyle features. Robison said NEXT tv is negotiating various content deals and that the former head of a major U.S. record label will be named as the company's chairman as early as this week.

Next month, Rifkind will oversee a national marketing campaign to bring the new station to the public's attention. But while Rifkind has credibility in the music business, it will take more than his name to attract viewers, said Raymond Roker, publisher of alternative music magazine URB.

"If you take a cue from all the hip-hop magazines out there you can see how hard it is," he said. "The Source reigns supreme and it's only got about 450,000 circulation. "There is an audience, but it can't just be another music video channel."

For Vertical Media, NEXT tv is the first of what Robison said would be several new cable channels launched over the next few years.

Robison said the company will focus heavily on creating interactivity between its viewers and Internet users through the use of set-top boxes.

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