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UMC’s Underdog Advantage: Inside the Streaming Battle for Premium Black Content

Facing increased competition from Viacom-funded BET+, UMC's Chief Content Officer Brett Dismuke revels in his service being a 'guinea pig' in the chase for black audiences.

"Stuck With You"

“Stuck With You”

RioDaGreat

Long before what is now referred to as the streaming wars began, Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and Chairman of RLJ Entertainment, announced UMC — Urban Movie Channel, RLJ’s proprietary streaming network. Officially launched in February 2015 featuring “urban-themed” series and movies, the service, which is now known only as UMC, is part of a suite of channels and streamers owned by AMC Networks, after the media company acquired RLJ in late 2018.

A direct competitor to the more recognized brand in BET+, which launched just last fall, UMC might be smaller in comparison, but it’s a characteristic that makes them much more flexible and far less averse to taking risks, especially when it comes to programming decisions. Additionally, having a five-year head start has allowed them the time to work through kinks that typically come with being a pioneer, which arguably gives them a leg-up when it comes to deftly navigating the space they occupy, chief content officer Brett Dismuke acknowledges.

“We were the very first streaming service in the marketplace that specialized in premium black content, and so we were essentially the guinea pigs for the business,” Dismuke said. “And we quickly found out that running a subscription service isn’t just creating an app and making content available. So we were able to slowly build the foundation of where we are today by working out all of those kinks over the years. And along the way, increasing the value of our content, while maintaining relevance in the marketplace.”

Dismuke, who was appointed to the position in January 2019, has over 20 years of experience, serving in executive level positions for independent production and entertainment companies, including Moguldom Entertainment and The Swirl Group.

"Behind Her Faith"

“Behind Her Faith”

Darius L. Carter

And if there’s anything his lengthy experience in film and television has taught him, it’s confidence, even when facing strong competition from an ambitious new service that has the financial backing of Viacom, as well as prolific mogul Tyler Perry’s massive and loyal fanbase. There is also Brown Sugar, a subsidiary of E. W. Scripps Company, and kweliTV, both offering more curated SVOD experiences targeting black audiences.

Can the market support them all?

“The fact that we’ve been around, consistently growing for the last six years, and seeing our subscriber growth increase 400% in the last 18 months, is a testament that we’re doing something right,” Dismuke said. “Also, one thing that we’ve realized is that you need more than one provider of a certain type of content, in this case black content. If you only have one, then the parent companies are less likely to believe in your vision, because they’ll say, ‘well, no one else is doing it, so why should we take the risk?'”

Although, while UMC is happy to appeal to a broad range of black audiences, Dismuke stressed that the service’s primary target audience is black women, age 25-55.

It attracts that audience with programming like Craig Ross Jr.’s “Monogamy,” an ensemble scripted drama series about four couples who take part in a new type of treatment called “Swap Therapy” to repair their broken marriages. According to Dismuke, it’s the streamer’s most popular program. Just completing its second season, “Monogamy” stars Brian White, Jill Marie Jones, Caryn Ward Ross, Darius McCrary, Wesley Jonathan, and Vanessa Simmons.

The service is also betting on an upcoming new original docuseries called “Behind Her Faith,” which stars Niecy Nash, Essence Atkins, and Aisha Hinds. Executive produced by Jay Ellis (HBO’s “Insecure”), the series focuses on leading women in entertainment as they talk about the most difficult moments in their lives, and how they overcame them to ultimately become successful through their commitments to faith. “Behind Her Faith” launches on March 26.

And premiering in April, a new scripted series called “Double Cross,” which Dismuke describes as “our take on ‘Dexter’ meets ‘The Wire’.”

UMC also licenses a broad collection of content that ranges from popular independent and studio films, like “Love Jones,” “Love and Basketball,” “Boomerang,” and “Harlem Nights,” and syndicated series like all four seasons of the Will and Jada Pinkett Smith-created beloved family comedy series, “All of Us,” starring Duane Martin and LisaRaye. The service is also home to content from sister networks like WeTV, including original tell-all series, “Untold Stories of Hip Hop,” featuring never-before-told tales from the biggest names in hip hop, hosted by radio personality, Angie Martinez.

One key area where the service lags most streamers is producing its own feature films. Dismuke said there are plans to begin doing so in 2021. “Right now we wanted to focus our efforts on building a library of our own original series, just because it gives the consumer more bang for their buck,” he said. “At the moment, it makes more sense for us to have the subscriber engaged for six weeks with us rolling out multiple episodes of a series. But again, as we continue to grow we are going to add original feature films to the mix.”

In the meantime, they are a presence on the black film festival circuit, acquiring feature films for distribution, both on the service and theatrically, when feasible. “We make a conscious effort to not only attend those festivals but also to be very visible because those festivals are the lifeline for our business and we will continue to support them and find content there,” said Dismuke.

"Monogamy"

“Monogamy”

Michael Letterloug

Recent acquisitions include the drama “His, Hers and the Truth,” which premiered at American Black Film Festival last summer and is currently streaming.

Theatrical releases include Master P’s “I Got the Hook Up 2” (2019), which UMC partnered with RLJE Feature Films to distribute. A day and date release, the movie grossed just over $252,000 with very limited theatrical exposure. “It did extremely well for us, given the number of screens it was on, as well as on VOD, and we are going to continue to take a more hybrid approach to how we release our content, making necessary adjustments as the service evolves,” Dismuke said.

Announcements of other feature film pickups are forthcoming.

Primarily available in the U.S. but also in Canada through Apple Channels, Dismuke envisions having a global presence. UMC will launch in the Caribbean this spring, with further expansion eyed. He expects that, within the next 12 to 15 months, they will have a presence on at least four continents.

And that expansion strategy also comes with a content strategy, which means building relationships with producers in other regions of the world, backing local creatives, as well as offering them what black Americans are creating Stateside. There are also plans to tease North American audiences with content acquired overseas, starting later this year.

Ultimately, global relevance is Dismuke’s goal, as the service ramps up output, with plans to release a new original series every month throughout 2020.

But while other platforms boast about how many subscribers they have, as well as how much they are spending on content, he was mum on those details, other than to emphasize UMC’s commitment to becoming the leader in providing original black content for black audiences, for years to come.

“I harken it to back to the ’90s, when everybody launched a record label, but if you look at the hundred record labels that launched, there are only seven of them still here,” he said. “Well, UMC is one of the services that will continue to be here, well into the future. And with the synergistic efforts that our parent company, AMC Networks, now provides, I have even more confidence in continuing to expand our efforts, and, more importantly take chances with content.”

With roughly 700 hours of content, including exclusive new original programming, licensed fan favorite series and movies, and stage plays, UMC is available on Apple and Android mobile devices, or can be streamed on Roku, Amazon or Apple TV, at a cost of $4.99 a month, or $49.99 a year. Visit umc.tv.

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