How ‘Washington Watch with Roland Martin’ succeeds

Roland Martin is always multitasking. He is a syndicated columnist, author, CNN contributor, and senior analyst with “The Tom Joyner Morning Show,” all in addition to his role as host and managing editor of the only Sunday morning talk show geared to black Americans.

The juggling appears to be paying off. Ratings for his Sunday news program, TV One’s “Washington Watch with Roland Martin” are up 35 percent and pacing 27 percent ahead of last season, according to Nielsen figures cited in a network press release.

CNN’s loss is TV One’s gain

Martin signed a development deal with CNN to create a weekend show, but the network nixed it in May 2009, Martin told me during a recent visit. In 2011, MSNBC announced it would launch its own daily news program led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, a move that several black journalists blasted.

“It doesn’t make sense that Al Sharpton (who isn’t a journalist) is the only African American hosting his own [daily] show. All we want is the opportunity, but all we get to hear are excuses,” said Martin who, along with long-time friend and former TV One President and CEO Johnathan Rodgers, launched “Washington Watch” three months after CNN ditched the idea.

More black Americans get their news from television than whites or Hispanics, according to a “Trends in News Consumption” report issued in September by the Pew Research Center.

Sixty-nine percent of black consumers said they watched TV news the previous day, compared to 56 percent of whites and 43 percent of Hispanics. In 2010, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism reported that African American cable subscriptions rose to 61 percent from 59 percent in 2009, while falling for other ethnic groups measured in the same time period.

Shows hosted by Martin and Sharpton, the report concluded, might have come at the “right time,” but black oriented TV news programs are rare and few have staying power. Viacom’s Black Entertainment Television (BET) announced this month that it would be scaling back on “Don’t Sleep,” a nightly show hosted by former CNN anchor T.J. Holmes, due to poor ratings. The show will now air once a week for one hour.

Martin’s show, however, appears to be bucking the trend.

Unlike the other news shows

“Washington Watch” reaches 142,000 homes, up from 105,000 last season. That may seem paltry compared to network Sunday news programs that reach millions of viewers each week, but Martin’s show is exceeding the performance of weekday cable news programs in terms of household share. For example, his show garnered a 0.25 household rating, compared to five-day-a-week news programs like MSNBC’s “Politics Nation” with Sharpton, which garnered a 0.7 percent share and CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” which received a 0.5 percent share, according to data compiled by Cable News Ranker for June through September 2012.

In an interview with Mediabistro, Roland Martin says other Sunday shows “are stuck in a time warp. Those shows are all so locked in on what’s happening in Washington D.C., they don’t have the ability to understand or think about the rest of the country.”

“That’s huge,” said Martin, who I first met when I interned for Cox Newspapers several years ago. “If we were in 90 to 100 million homes like MSNBC, CNN and FOX, we would be doing gang busters.”

TV One reaches 57 million homes, Martin said.

“ ‘Washington Watch’ has allowed TV One to keep our loyal and expanding viewership informed and up-to-date about key issues and current affairs on a regular basis,” current President and CEO Wonya Lucas said in a press release last month. Lucas credited Martin for the “leap in viewership,” and said the show has become “an important touchstone for Black audiences” especially during this year’s election.

“I never operated like I needed to work at The Washington Post or The New York Times to do great journalism. For me it’s about the opportunity,” said Martin, who ran black newspapers in Dallas, Texas before becoming editor-in-chief of The Chicago Defender in 2004.

“My deal is, if CNN did not want to launch a weekend show, fine, we got one on TV One. The opportunity at TV One to helm my own show and to have my name on it where I get to be the host and managing editor… I get to decide who’s on it and the topics we cover. That was important to me.”

“I don’t believe that TV One is secondary to CNN,” he continued. “I’ve never believed that. It’s the same attitude I had when I ran black newspapers. I never believed that we were inferior.” (Martin mentored me when I ran a weekly newspaper in Dallas.)

Martin launched his journalism career by working at The Houston Defender. He later covered government beats at The Austin American-Statesman and The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. It was while he was assigned to the City Hall beat in Ft. Worth that a local radio station, KKDA, approached him about doing a show. “I’ve always believed in using all of my skills,” Martin said.

And that’s what he ultimately did. In addition to his other jobs, Martin is also a blogger and prolific tweeter. It was multitasking – watching television and smack-talking on Twitter – that landed him in hot water earlier this year for sending homophobic tweets. After being temporarily suspended by CNN, Martin returned to that network, but was largely absent from CNN’s recent election coverage.

Martin insists that “Washington Watch” doesn’t try to compete with the other network and cable news shows.

“We don’t do what they do,” he said. For one, Martin makes no apologies that his show caters to an audience interested in black issues. “Those other shows are locked into a formula,” he said. “You’ll see more diversity on our show. We have white panelists, we don’t lock anybody out. We just don’t want to hear from the same senator that will appear on those other shows. We want to hear from different voices.”

Producing the show, Martin said, is not without its challenges.

TV One has limited resources, so Martin shoots the show on Fridays because it is more expensive to do it live on Sundays. The show also has difficulty booking guests. “We don’t operate as though we’re less than,” he said.

Filling a gap in coverage

On any given Sunday, “Washington Watch” viewers hear from conservative pundits like Republican columnist Armstrong Williams to progressives like Sirius/XM Radio host Joe Madison. Other Sunday morning shows feature America’s governors; on Martin’s show viewers get to hear from the country’s mayors. Viewers get to hear from leading voices overlooked by other Sunday news programs.

But “Washington Watch” isn’t just a political show. Martin also covers cultural and social issues. Actor Charles S. Dutton, who was in the studio the day Poynter visited, talked with Martin about a film he produced called “The Obama Effect.” Sonya Ross, a former White House correspondent and now race, ethnicity and demographics editor in the Associated Press’ Washington, D.C., bureau, is a frequent guest on the show. Two weeks before the election, pollster Cornell Belcher talked with Martin about Obama’s ground game among African American, Latino and young voters– critical in the president’s election victory.

Perhaps if the other broadcast and cable networks had more diverse voices and experts on air during the election, as Martin did, they would have been less surprised by minority voter turnout.

“If Roland didn’t have a show, would you have seen any real analysis about minority voter participation? That’s something Roland talked about throughout this election cycle,” Ross told Poynter by phone.

“Networks are only now talking about it. Pundits are sitting around navel gazing trying to figure out why the vote went down the way it did. So perhaps the better question is: If we didn’t have Roland’s show, what would we have seen?” Ross said she would love to see the show grow. “It’s a discussion we should have daily instead of once a week.”

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