‘Annoyed and Betrayed’: Inside the Collapse of the Black News Channel

 
BNC Hosts

Former BNC hosts Aisha Mills, Del Walters, BNC president Princell Hair and BNC host Charles Blow. Photo via Black News Channel.

If you flip to the Black News Channel today, you’ll find little sign the channel ever existed. The first 24-hour news network for Black audiences, replete with political commentary and investigative reporting, is gone. All that is being shown now are documentaries and rebroadcasts of foreign sporting events. Nothing remains except the BNC logo.

By the time the network stopped offering live programming last month, it boasted a reach of 50 million households and had added a streaming platform called BNC Go to its linear offering.

Yet despite its wide availability, bountiful funding, and impressive roster of talent on both sides of the camera, BNC never took off. The network averaged just 4,000 viewers in 2021, according to Nielsen, ranking behind Newsy, Accuweather, and Fuse.

After just two years on the air, BNC was unceremoniously shut down. The network stopped airing new original content on March 25 and subsequently filed for bankruptcy. Bankruptcy proceedings began in federal court on April 19, when the organization was granted permission to borrow money from majority investor Shad Khan.

To understand how a once promising network collapsed, Mediaite spoke to several BNC insiders who worked on and off the air. They provided a clearer timeline and explanation of what happened at the first around-the-clock news network for Black audiences, and what might come next.

From its inception, the objective of BNC had been clear to all involved.

“Black CNN was the model,” one on-air employee told Mediaite. “Every show was constantly compared to CNN.”

The network was founded by former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts and TV executive Bob Brillante, who had previously tried to launch a “CNN for Black viewers” in the 1990s and 2000s. Shad Khan, a Pakistani entrepreneur who also owns the professional All-Elite Wrestling league and the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, came in as majority stakeholder by investing a reported $50 million.

After multiple delays, BNC launched in February 2020 — weeks before the Covid pandemic erupted in the United States — and the troubles started in the first few months of the network’s existence. Brillante left the network after only three months and multiple members of on-air talent slated to join BNC also jumped ship (or were “scrubbed out,” as one source put it). Princell Hair – a former CNN executive – was named CEO in June 2020.

After one full year on air, BNC rebooted. In March 2021, the network launched a new 18-hour lineup featuring commentary shows hosted by Marc Lamont Hill, Charles Blow, Mike Hill, and Sharon Reed.

Sources who spoke to Mediaite felt Hair had even higher ambitions for the channel than were anticipated when it first launched. Under Hair, a significant amount of money was invested in equipment and talent. Sources said at least two non-prime time hosts were known to have a salary north of $300,000.

There was a salary preference for the anchors, however, with one source stressing, “I know that correspondents and reporters weren’t seeing what the anchors were.”

While the budget towered over BNC’s ratings, it reflected the astronomical ambitions set forth by Hair and others in leadership. One on-air contributor at BNC told Mediaite, “Even amongst the most seasoned correspondents and reporters, we knew this place was overextending itself to match up to other, much better-funded networks.”

(Hair did not respond to a request for comment.)

When the network launched streaming service BNC Go last September, staff became even more perplexed, if not frustrated, with the network’s direction. “BNC Go” added availability for the channel to millions of households and streaming devices – but instead of airing content from the linear network, executives added an additional 18 hours of original daily content that aired at the same exact time as the rest of BNC’s lineup.

“That was the decision that still doesn’t make sense to me,” one contributor said. “We already knew viewership was way too low, just from the online engagement. [BNC Go] just felt like a separate, competing network.”

On the air, most BNC shows were allowed near-complete editorial independence – including Marc Lamont Hill’s primetime show Black News Tonight, where the controversial choice of guests and debates raised eyebrows among BNC staff. Other than occasional viral clips, the questionable segments didn’t translate to improved viewership numbers.

In the view of one anchor who spoke to Mediaite, the network didn’t take concerns about platforming controversial voices or opinions seriously.

“They were clearly trying to build two separate divisions: News and Primetime/Opinion,” the anchor said, similarly to how other cable networks operate.

“The issue is, though, we were literally building a plane and flying it at the same time.”

Behind the scenes, the network had bigger issues arising. One woman who appeared on-air got so fed up with her treatment that she threatened to resign – and ultimately did – if she had to keep working with one male programming staffer, Mediaite has learned. More allegations of harassment, hostile work environment, and inappropriate remarks would be reported to network management, including several that resulted in lawsuits.

“It felt like we went to work everyday with boxing gloves on,” said one contributor.

After multiple meetings between executives and female staff about the prevalence of harassment were held, Hair planned a virtual “town hall” meeting. But the town hall — which ended up being pre-recorded, with only anchor Sharon Reed asking him questions — didn’t satisfy staff concerns.

In August 2021, the network was accused of gender discrimination, and allegations eventually led to a class-action lawsuit. Hair announced in October 2021 that BNC would be implementing “several changes…to help ensure that our work environment empowers our employees to be innovative and motivated.”

In the fall, the huge operational staff of BNC began to slowly dwindle, two sources confirmed: first via resignations for positions that weren’t replaced, then explicit elimination of some full-time roles in October and November. Then, in December, an undisclosed amount of employees were laid off the week before Christmas. The Wrap reported that the total number of staffers let go was as high as 80.

By the end of 2021, BNC’s staff fell to around 230 from prior estimates of north of 300. An executive told Mediaite they were certain Khan began pressuring Hair to lower costs BNC was accruing, but that there remained “no inkling” of what was to come — especially as they began courting additional investors.

Hair still seemed confident in his vision, sources said, but others weren’t.

“This was exciting and thrilling work – but we were constantly wondering if the budget was going to last,” a contributor told Mediaite. “When the network began taking and airing CNN-licensed content… we were saying that wasn’t a good sign.”

“Once the Nielsen ratings came out, the writing was on the wall,” another contributor added.

It wasn’t until the morning of March 24 that things really began to unravel.

Staffers learned one by one that their co-workers hadn’t received their paychecks by direct deposit as scheduled. Attempts to contact human resources for an explanation didn’t get a response for hours, and alarm spread through the company before an afternoon all-staff email. “The March 25th payroll deposit will be delayed,” vice president of human resources Nicole Collins wrote, “We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.”

A network executive told Mediaite they were assured that BNC’s HR team was “in talks with Khan’s people on Thursday to make payroll.”

Regardless, for remaining full-time staff, it was clear the network was in trouble. By the end of the day, many staffers – and at least one host – decided that they weren’t going to work another second. An anchor told Mediaite they personally suggested Friday’s programming shouldn’t (and couldn’t) go ahead as scheduled. They expected an announcement to come that evening that BNC would be airing re-runs moving forward. But it never came, and the suggestions were not heeded.

At a regularly scheduled Friday morning production meeting at 8 a.m., Senior VP of Content Vickie Burns was tasked with being the first manager to face staff who hadn’t gotten paid.

“Vickie went ahead as business-as-usual,” one source told Mediaite, and “didn’t even address the payroll issues without being asked” by a co-worker – another executive.

A subsequent 8:30 a.m. tele-meeting between leadership, correspondents and reporters devolved into near-mutiny, sources said, as staff demanded to know how the network intended to put anything on air given the situation. Many in attendance asked to hear directly from Hair, but a source said Burns “sat there without her camera on,” offering little in the way of answers.

Burns did not respond to a request for comment.

Despite the outrage, much of BNC’s staff still went to work, and at least a few hours of programming went on as usual.

An executive said they too were tasked with operating as normal. The only change? “We got a meeting invite,” the executive said, for 12:30 p.m. “Then the meeting’s start time got pushed back to 1:15 p.m. Then, 2.”

The meeting never happened.

At 12:57 p.m., the Los Angeles Times published a report: “Shad Khan’s Black News Channel is shutting down.”

The article came out before most of BNC’s staff were officially informed about the fate of the channel. Staff received a memo from Hair confirming the report within the hour, and the network ended its live programming less than an hour later, at 2 p.m.

BNC has aired reruns and previously-purchased content ever since to fulfill the duration of their commitments to carriers.

“A lot of people have assumed that we knew this was going to happen, and that we didn’t do anything,” an executive told Mediaite. “And I need it to be clear: we had no idea. We were floored when this happened. None of us knew.”

“I haven’t been paid either,” the executive said, adding that nearly “all of us were told we were being let go.”

“I just feel annoyed and betrayed,” they said. “We all do.”

The “emergency conclusion” meeting was the only formal proceeding that took place after the announcement, and it offered no conclusive answers to BNC staff.  One source told Mediaite that only one executive – Cesar Alderama, Vice President of News and Operations – attended the last meeting.

In the immediate aftermath, staffers made calls and pleas to management in an effort to get any information – specifically, how much of the deferred payments already owed to them they would receive.

Prime time anchor Marc Lamont Hill spoke out publicly within hours of the news, tweeting in response to the Times report, “The real exclusive is that [Khan is] refusing to give people their paychecks today.”

Shortly after Hill’s tweet at 4:47 p.m., Roland Martin said on his show on streaming service Black Star Network that he received a phone call confirming Khan “verbally committed” to fulfilling payroll for BNC employees.

Within the first week of BNC’s shutdown, a private Facebook group with job listings was created for newly-unemployed staff. CNN’s recruiting division created an “outreach” form for former BNC employees to fill out for potential future opportunities. Groups such as the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) issued statements and offered resources.

Many former BNC staffers, including all those that spoke to Mediaite, said they were proud to have worked at the once-promising network – that is, before an email on April 7, which reneged on the promise of paying wages by April 8.

The email, signed by Chief Legal Officer Alison Gordon and VP of Finance Maureen Brown, told former employees BNC was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which legally precludes them from spending money on nearly anything – “including the remaining earned but unpaid wages to all of you.”

While it was the “intention” of the network to compensate most of its staff, the email said, “several credible parties expressed their interest in purchasing BNC so in the name of exploring these inquiries, our restructuring strategy shifted.”

In court on April 19, BNC –  represented by Gregory Werkheiser of Benesch Law – asked for permission to borrow $1.6 million from Khan. To justify the need, BNC revealed they had retained 17 of their previous 200-plus staffers before filing for bankruptcy. BNC also submitted evidence that reflected that they only had about $500,000 available cash at the time they shut down, and debts of more than $25 million.

Khan’s lawyer Christopher Schreiber told the court that they expect BNC to operate only for “the next sixty days,” as they expect “within that time we’re going to have a sale.”

An executive told Mediaite that to their knowledge, the only staff the network retained for its planned shutdown procedures included Hair, Brown, Gordon, and Collins. A few other staff members remain legally contracted at the network, but aren’t doing any work.

Which suitors are being courted for BNC’s sale remains to be seen. Prior to its shutdown, the most notable name rumored to be interested was Entertainment Studios, owned by media mogul Byron Allen. On the March 25 episode of Roland Martin’s Black Star Network show, he reported Allen had previously offered to invest $30 million – but Khan declined, and Allen withdrew his interest at that time.

“Considering the timeline of events, [Khan] probably lost confidence in Princell around September or November,” a BNC anchor told Mediaite.

But, given how much money Khan invested in BNC and Hair’s vision of the network, “My one question is… how did the relationship between Princell and Shad fall apart? How did they read each other so wrong?”

BNC employees are not the only ones still searching for answers. In a solidarity statement the National Writers Union (NWU) issued on April 11, the organization pledged to put their “full weight” on BNC to pay former staff, and asked workers to reach out for guidance.

Closing out his remarks about BNC on his show in March, Roland Martin asked, “Can this notion succeed? Can this idea of a Black news network work? The answer is yes – it can work – but it has to be done right.”

Have a tip we should know? tips@mediaite.com

Filed Under: