In 1980, when I founded BET Holdings II with financial support from JohnMalone, CEO of Telecommunications Inc. (TCI), MTV, theleading entertainment cable channel, was playing mostly pop and rock, all butignoring the African-American audience that generally prefers soul music orrhythm and blues. In launching our cable channel, Black EntertainmentTelevision, which initially aired for only two hours on Friday and Saturdaynight, we were aiming to fill that void.

What happened next was that MTV, within a couple of months, also began playingsoul music and rhythm and blues. For a fledgling such as BET, MTV'sability to use its considerable marketing muscle to respond so quickly couldhave been unnerving. But we at BET weren't unnerved; in fact, we figured thatMTV's entry into "our" market was inevitable.

Just as BET was serving only a segment of the broad-based market forentertainment products -- what is commonly called a "niche" in businesscircles -- MTV, albeit considerably larger, also was serving but a segment ofthis larger audience. Itself a "niche" business, MTV had targeted young people,just as we had African-Americans.

Think Globally, Act Locally

Indeed, it's the nature of cable television to be a "niche," because we offerchoices to discrete audiences without denying other audiences differentchoices. Taking this logic a step further, you could argue that all companies,even the largest, are actually "niche" businesses.

Even if you are Coca-Cola, McDonald's, or IBM, you must market soft drinks,hamburgers, or computers in what might be called a "niche fashion," tailoringyour pitch for specific consumers and for varying cultures around the globe.Mothers go to McDonald's for one reason, kids another -- and you need to reachthem both. You surely won't convince the moms if you're selling them on thetoy in the "Happy Meal" bag. You must, in other words, "think globally, actlocally."

In sum, all the world's a niche -- the business world, at least. Given that,fledgling niche companies (as was BET in 1980) can be spared the tyranny ofthinking along the lines of "I can't because I'm small and they're big."Instead, these companies are free to concentrate on what they really need todo, which is to survive.

And to survive, as either a fledgling or established niche player, a companymust be steadfast about its mission, creative about its products and services,and dogged about its efforts to expand.

Be True

At their most fundamental, niche businesses carve out a specialtyproduct or service for a discrete audience. To survive, they must staytrue to what their customers want them to be. People flock to McDonald's for fast food andfrench fries, so when they get there, the food had better be fast and the potatoesfried if they are to return.

At BET, our audience expects us to represent the African-American experience,culturally, socially, politically. We don't dare disappoint. In addition toour flagship entertainment channel (which now programs 24 hours a day, sevendays a week), our cable TV channels offer all-black movies and jazz, anAfrican-American phenomenon.

Our magazines target the black audience for entertainment (BET Weekend), news(Emerge), and health and fitness (Heart & Soul). Even our restaurants fall inline. Our BET SoundStage features a music theme, while BET on Jazz Restaurantspecializes in new-world Caribbean cuisine. In our business, there's nomarching to a different drummer; we stick to our own.

Stay Cool

Within the framework of familiarity and consistency, consumers also expect theexcitement of fresh ideas. This isn't a paradox. Even niche companies mustkeep moving if they are to survive. Those that stand stillare destined to fail.

At BET, the solution has been expanding within our framework -- leveraging ourbrand, if you will. Once we did the obvious -- taking our flagship channelfrom a mere two hours twice a week to round-the-clock programming -- weturned to launching the specialty movie and jazz channels. Then we took ourbrand to publishing, a business similar to cable TV, in that bothdisseminate information that is supported by advertising and measured by readership.

We believe we can leverage our brand indefinitely; indeed, to keep pace withthe competition, we believe that we must. In the early 1990s, we entered whatfor us were different businesses, such as our restaurants and an apparel linefor men, hedging the risk by going in with partners who had operatingexpertise. What we brought was the brand. Put another way, you can bet that wewon't soon be opening a Chinese restaurant.

Take Heart

The third leg of the niche business stool involves committing the resourcesnecessary for expansion. It's at this point that many niche companies hit awall. If you're bringing in $5 million in revenue and you're payingyourself $3 million, you'll find it hard to put together the resourcesnecessary for expansion -- and for survival.

Remember that survival is the operative word, not "niche." The good news isthat you needn't be intimidated as a niche player. If you aim to be true, staycool, and take heart, then you can compete against the world's other nichecompanies. All the world's a niche, and keep in mindthat you, too, are a part of the world.

Robert L. Johnson is founder, chairman, and CEO of BET Holdings II of Washington, D.C., one of the nation's leading black-owned and -operated media entertainment companies.

Copyright 1999