Producing Success

For 40 years, Central City Productions has broken barriers in syndicated television

Don Jackson

In the late 1960s, a colleague approached Don Jackson who was then an advertising sales manager for WVON, Chicago’s No. 1 black-oriented radio station, inviting him to work on the development of a new television show. The concept was an African American dance show and the creator was an aspiring disc jockey named Don Cornelius. After evaluating the concept, Jackson said: “Man, there is no way in hell a show called Soul Train will ever make it. Thank you, but no thank you.”

Of course, when Jackson called Cornelius, now a household name, more than a decade later to pitch his own idea, he had to eat his words. But the intrepid entrepreneur didn’t hesitate to contact his old friend because he knew his company, Central City Productions, could boost Soul Train’s flagging advertising revenues. “Cornelius was underpriced and losing coverage, losing time periods, and represented by people who didn’t have his best interest at stake,” reflects Jackson.

Jackson had already produced a successful slate of television programs and events that targeted African Americans and gained wide distribution for his vehicles through a partnership with media behemoth Tribune Co. Using that arrangement, he shared with Cornelius a blueprint for putting Soul Train on prime-time slots in top markets such as Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, and Detroit. It was an offer Cornelius couldn’t refuse as well as testament to Jackson’s persistence. Jackson went on to distribute, syndicate, and sell advertising for the weekly program, generating more than $20 million in advertising over 23 years, and CCP earned more than $5 million in commissions. Jackson and Cornelius then launched the Soul Train Music Awards in 1987, which lasted 20 years under their management.

This is just one example of the business prowess of Jackson,  67, who has been responsible for operating one of the industry’s most prolific black-owned production companies and producing high-quality fare for African American audiences shown in syndication and on cable television networks. Now, CCP is celebrating its 40th anniversary and his $15 million enterprise is still going strong.

As a television viewer, you have undoubtedly seen one of Jackson’s productions throughout the years: CCP owns five programs—Know Your Heritage, which has provided close to $1 million in scholarships directly to high school student contestants on the game show; Black College Quiz; Hispanic College Quiz;  Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic, one of the largest parades in the U.S.; and the Stellar Awards, a gospel music showcase—and co-owns two other productions, including Our World with Black Enterprise and the Black Enterprise Business Report, formerly America’s Black Forum and Minority Business Report, respectively (CCP has been a media partner with black enterprise in the development of these programs for more than five years).

“One of the things I appreciate most is that we do positive programming. Oftentimes, when we watch TV, we see so many negative images of people of color, and African Americans in particular,” says Jennifer Jackson, general manager, executive in charge of productions, and Jackson’s niece. “It makes us feel good at the end of the day to show the world as we see it, which is people who are successful and doing really good things.”

Jackson maintains that in the past 10 years the roster of programs CCP produces and owns have experienced some of the highest ratings in more than three decades. Our World, for example, reaches 98% of black households in 145 markets and an average 2.7 rating (which represents 378,000 black households per week). “Don’s long-term vision and experience in the broadcast business made him a compelling partner for our entry into the television industry,” says Earl G. Graves Jr., president and CEO of Black Enterprise, which co-produces Our World and BEBR with Jackson. His knowledge of TV distribution and his ability to identify talent has made him  and CCP extremely valuable assets.” In addition, advertising revenues for the 2010 Trumpet Awards, an event, highlighting African American achievers, grew by about 15%. “He’s such a determined man,” says Xernona Clayton, who produced the awards show and worked as an executive at Turner Broadcasting Co. for nearly 30 years. “He is a man that sees there are no limits to your horizons of success.”

One of Jackson’s greatest success stories has been the production of the 25-year-old Stellar Awards, a syndicated television special featuring gospel music’s biggest superstars. This year, he signed Verizon Wireless as a first-time sponsor along with longtime advertisers including State Farm, Wal-Mart, and McDonald’s. Despite the recession, Jackson says the program increased revenue by 25%, and live, same-day viewership also increased by 32% according to Nielsen.

Jackson is also credited with launching the first-ever Black Nielsen Household Ratings Survey by which all black TV shows are measured by the advertising industry. “He is without a doubt one of the best visionaries I’ve ever seen,” says Erma Gray Davis, CCP’s president and COO. “He has some of the most wonderful ideas, in this arena, and I think he hasn’t gotten credit for a lot of those ideas.”

But before Jackson became a giant in independent television production, he was a giant on the basketball court leading John Marshall Metropolitan High School to the state championships in 1961. His success on the court led him to Northwestern University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in radio, television, and film on a basketball scholarship.

Soon afterward he became one of the youngest advertising sales managers at WVON, a radio station which was owned by Leonard Chess of Chess Records, a renowned blues music label at the time. But making millions for someone else wasn’t what he wanted. After Chess died and the radio station was sold, Jackson decided to strike out on his own with CCP.

In addition to producing shows that showcase African Americans in a positive light, Jackson has created hundreds of jobs for blacks working in television production. The Stellar Awards alone can employ 200 to 300 people for the event, he says. Also CCP has launched the careers of several black camera people, writers, and producers who went on to work for the Grammy Awards, Harpo Inc., Black Entertainment Television, and major network affiliates.

Still, the road hasn’t been entirely smooth for Jackson. In the late ’80s, broadcast television stations became more inclined to seek paid television advertising as opposed to independently produced programs. To this day, Jackson still wrestles to get his shows aired during peak hours on broadcast affiliates of the major networks, but now he takes his fight with broadcast stations directly to the advertisers.

“Broadcast stations have forgotten about programming to African Americans. They will tell you they don’t have the space for it,” he says. “They are going to say that they need more targeted dollars. When the advertising community supports it, and demands it, [then] it happens.”
But Jackson hasn’t kept his sights on CCP alone. In 1992, he and Ralph Moore started the Alliance of Business Leaders & Entrepreneurs (ABLE), a Chicago-based organization that has precipitated the growth of black business owners, including elite financial all-stars such as John Rogers of Ariel Investments L.L.C. (No. 5 on the BE Asset Managers list with $5.1 billion in assets under management), and Quintin Primo of Capri Capital Partners L.L.C. (No. 8 on the BE Asset Managers list with $3.8 billion in assets under management).

Jackson’s decades of experiences have prepared him for his most ambitious endeavor: Black Family Television Network, the faith-based news and entertainment channel he hopes to launch. He plans to finance BFTN by providing equity ownership to megachurches, institutions that collectively have 10 million-plus followers Jackson believes will also support the network. He says: “With the expertise we have in production, syndication, sales, and distribution, we are amply qualified to have our own network.”

Even without BFTN, Jackson has been a catalyst for industrywide diversity, creating vehicles that have showcased black talent in front of the camera as well as behind the scenes. As the mentor to the company’s next generation his legacy of tenacity and achievement will be a part of CCP’s DNA for decades to come.

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