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BET launches new portal for blacks online

Media and entertainment company BET Holdings unveils a new Web portal in an effort to attract the expanding population of African-Americans online.

Media and entertainment company BET Holdings today unveiled a new Web portal in an effort to attract the expanding population of African-Americans online.

The site has also completed a $35 million investment round from a handful of technology and media heavyweights, including Microsoft, Liberty Digital, News Corp. and USA Networks. Plans for the investment were first announced in August.

The new site, called BET.com, will feature a list of content and community offerings commonly found on the Web. These include sections devoted to news, personal finance, health, lifestyle and careers.

In addition, the portal will offer an online music section featuring streaming music videos, radio, artist profiles and other content. The site will introduce an online retail section later this year.

"We're not only building great site but also aggressively marketing it," Scott Mills, chief operating officer of BET.com, said in an interview. "My parent company owns more media channels targeting the African-American community than any other company. That's a lot of marketing for a niche product."

Many sites are increasingly drawn to tapping the growing number of black Web users, given the community's rapid online adoption, analysts say. Forrester Research predicts African-American households online will hit 43 percent of the entire population, from 23 percent in 1999.

"African-Americans are an ideal community for an affinity portal," Robert Johnson, chief executive of BET Holdings and BET.com, said in a statement. "With African-Americans projected to be the fastest-growing online segment in 2000, now is the ideal time to create an online destination that gives African-American users an engaging online experience--every day."

The launch is also another example of how firms increasingly are looking to build sites that target specific social demographics. The number of "affinity" or "vertical" portals, as they are commonly known, has grown over the past few years. These sites often offer content geared to a specific audience; some popular sites include women's sites iVillage and Oxygen Media, sports sites ESPN and SportsLine, and Spanish language sites Star Media and Yupi.

Despite coming late to the game, BET stands a chance to dominate the space, given its brand, clout and cross-promotional opportunities, according to Ekaterina Walsh, an analyst at Forrester Research.

"None has what BET has, which is a TV channel, which allows BET to not only tap into the Internet audience but also pull new users," Walsh said about BET's competition.

The site is still entering a crowded market. BET.com will face competition from NetNoir, a Net veteran in which America Online owns a 20 percent stake. BET will also go up against GlobalMecca, a site that caters to affluent blacks by providing content about business, career building and literature.

Many ethnic sites have struggled to make their business models work. Asian portal site Channel A in 1996 was intended to become a forum for Asian-American issues and a platform for an eventual e-commerce business. Two years later, the company closed its doors due to sagging sales and revenues.

Now, some of the original founders of Channel A are looking to create a new Asian-American Web destination. Plans for "A. Space" are currently in the works.

BET will launch an $8 million advertising campaign to push BET.com through cable television, print, radio, online and outdoor ads. In addition, BET will promote the site throughout its media holdings, which include its flagship cable station, a book publishing division, a collection of magazines and restaurants.