Digital revolutionary: Byron Allen takes the starring role in media's 'business show'
In the Spotlight: Byron Allen celebrates 30 years at the helm and he's just warming up!
He’s larger than life, and even Bloomberg has said of him: “…the onetime stand-up comic turned all-around media mogul is a man on a mission.” And that is a fact. But to understand Byron Allen, you have to go back to his roots. Growing up in The Motor City, the Detroit-born and raised founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Allen Media Group (AMG) fondly remembers middle-of-the-night drives to Ford Motor Company to drop his dad off at work in the factory. As a kid, he was fascinated by the industrialists that shaped the United States. Studying how they built their vertically integrated businesses was far more than a pastime for Allen; it was a passion that would one day enable him to see that show business, in actuality, is ‘business show,’ as he calls it.
Patterning business models after those of the industry titans and homing in on what he describes as his blue-collar DNA, he went on to launch in 1993 what would become, 30 years later, the country’s largest, privately held technology-driven company solely owned by an African American.
Pairing his love for comedy, content production and business while harnessing the humble perseverance of his Rust Belt roots, the media mogul, comedian, producer and philanthropist knows the magnitude of tapping into new frontiers. With a thirst for innovation and desire to apply technology to enhance lives, Allen is a forerunner in what he coins the digital revolution, with content and engagement as the growth driver.
Taking home Digiday’s 2023 Best Streaming Service award for Local Now, the powerhouse streaming platform that uses artificial intelligence and proprietary software to curate, aggregate and stream super-hyper local news, weather, sports, traffic and air-quality conditions geofenced to the user’s zip code, Allen is proud of the win; but even more so being in the company of fellow nominees — and besting — Tubi, Paramount+ and Hulu. “For us to be on the same playing field with them is an honor,” says Allen.
Coming to AMG as part of The Weather Channel acquisition five years ago, Allen invested many millions in personal capital to reposition and grow Local Now, making the Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD) free while increasing its revenue fiftyfold over the past two years.
Today, it’s far more than a regular on the streaming scene. It’s a stand-out due to its localization layered with professionally produced content, offering over 18,500 TV shows, documentaries and movies and 450 free ad-supported television (FAST) channels, making it the largest provider of FAST channels. Bloomberg Television, Architectural Digest and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where Allen got his comedic start, are just a few of the quality channels in its lineup. Topping it off, Local Now is the first streaming service to sign PBS, onboarding 300 of their local streams.
“It’s really something special,” he adds. “It’s non-linear. You get super-hyper localization and whatever content you want when you want it.”
Think of Local Now as your own TV station living on your OTT and mobile devices. It’s the best of both worlds — know first what’s happening out your front door, then nationwide, then around the world. Localization is where everything starts, and Local Now gives consumers the freedom to stream and binge movies, TV shows and all sorts of great content, including PBS, which is a game-changer.
With plenty of room to grow, Allen intends to develop this digital equivalent of a fully distributed broadcast network into THE WORLD’S FIRST SUPER APP, with plans to eventually add other components like shopping delivery, dating, ride shares, local maps and more.
“The digital revolution is in its infancy, and it’s exciting,” says Allen. “I believe we have an opportunity to create new media companies that have a seat at the table and engage audiences worldwide. When I looked at the internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I thought, ‘It’s interesting that we’re using .com to read. But we, as human beings, watch more than we read, and eventually, we’ll use the internet for watching.’ That’s when I started buying all of the .tvs. I felt we were in the Golden Age of streaming.”
Broad then focused, cable networks surpassed broadcast television viewing by more than 50 percent, and Allen believes we will one day use streaming as we once used television.
“I think folks will say, ‘I want comedy.tv, cars.tv, sports.tv, pets.tv, recipe.tv,’ and that’s what we’ve been building out,” he explains. “We are better positioned than most to go direct to the consumer, using the power of AI to distribute high-definition content worldwide in 200-plus languages, leveraging technology to deliver significant value.”
Likening the company’s 75,000-square-foot production studio to the Ford factory floor, where his father reported long ago, Allen attributes AMG’s success to our vertically integrated, direct-to-consumer (DTC) model. And that’s the differentiator between us and how other studios run.
Looking at everything from an entertainer and artist’s perspective, Allen and his team create, produce, distribute, advertise and promote the content. His background and performance experience are the foundation for the ultimate DTC content delivery to approximately four billion connected devices.
“Allen Media Group is 100 percent digital, which is why I always say we’ll be the world’s biggest media company,” elaborates Allen. “As our audiences grow, they’ll discover our verticals, and we’ll continue to produce more content for those verticals, creating more engagement worldwide.”
Case in point: Entering the court business over a decade ago, AMG has emerged as the world's largest owner, producer and distributor of first-run court shows. With his recent acquisitions of brands and talent like Greg Mathis and Marilyn Milian, Allen’s critics are no longer questioning his court programming interests. This fall, there will be 11 of them in production, with nine produced by AMG.
A dependable, billion-dollar-plus ad category for local television stations and a solid news lead-in, it’s a highly valuable genre, and Allen’s team orchestrates it like a star-studded Motown music act.
Another sought-after space to be is in weather news. To celebrate The Weather Channel's 40th anniversary in 2022, Allen made it DTC-accessible, going even further to create The Weather Channel en Español, the first and only 24-hour Spanish-language weather news channel. It’s a testament to Allen’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, bringing targeted, essential and affordable content to devices everywhere. He sees that The Weather Channel saves lives. The reporting needs to speak to all consumers, especially our Spanish-speaking audience along the gulf where so many weather events seem to be intensifying year after year.
Following the mantra that showing is far more powerful than telling, Allen applies the proprietary system, Immersive Mixed Reality (IMR) technology, to the English and Spanish versions of The Weather Channel, merging the complex science of meteorology with Hollywood-style graphics for enhanced storytelling.
"With weather news, you're helping save lives, and IMR aids in telling that story more effectively, so viewers better understand the risks," says Allen. “This coming together of technology and content is transformative in how we tell stories today and for future generations.”
Other expansions in 2022 include purchasing the Black News Channel, renamed TheGrio, adding 300 million linear and digital subscribers to the AMG portfolio of assets, and 27 and counting ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX network affiliate broadcast television stations nationwide.
With three decades under his belt learning the media landscape and building AMG’s foundation, Allen is ready for the skyscrapers to go up. One of those skyscrapers is leading the charge and effectuating change in our multi-billion-dollar advertising industry through his BLACK OWNED MEDIA MATTERS movement.
An avid and vocal advocate of media planners and advertisers increasing their spend with Black-owned media companies, Allen stays the course despite corporations not fully living up to their declarations. Since spearheading AMG’s Black-owned Media Upfronts over two years ago, “we have a long way to go,” says Allen.
“They’ve had two years to get it right, and they’ve chosen one of three buckets,” he explains. “Bucket number one: I don’t care to get it right. Bucket number two: I’m going to minimize getting it right. And Bucket number three: Let’s get it right. Most are sitting in buckets one and two. There continues to be very little transparency about who is spending what, overall, and how much of that is being spent with Black-owned media. Everybody knows that when there’s no transparency, there’s usually no honesty or integrity in the process.”
An outspoken, straight shooter, Allen takes note of the press, disclosing that some journalists see the disparity as it relates to corporate America doing business with Black America equitably. When asked if he considers them helping, Allen answers, “Yes, because they’re asking the real questions, getting the runaround and calling the companies out for not leaning in.”
He also raises the issue that we must remain clear that we’re speaking on behalf of Black-owned media. Some corporations are diluting, diverting and deceiving the cause by using words like diverse, minority, multicultural and BIPOC media.
"My mother said, 'Don't just listen to what they say. Please also listen to what they don't say,'" says Allen. "With TheGrio, AMG's free premium network focusing on the African American community, in approximately 55 million homes and Black college sports and educational programs playing on the platform, plenty of advertisers should have been saying, 'Let me be sure I'm a part of that.' Unfortunately, the list of advertisers who never called and said that is infinitely longer than the list that said, ‘please include me.’ For those who don’t show up, it’s telling.”
Allen is committed to steering corporations to be on the right side of history, and there’s no slowing him down. He will host an impressive, talent-filled AMG UPFRONT at an upscale eatery in New York City on Wednesday, April 26, and then a Black-Owned Media Upfront webinar on TVNewsCheck in early May. Both will spotlight the significance of leaning in, doing what’s long overdue and addressing accountability. “We deliver so many opportunities for our advertisers, and at the end of the day, we want the marketplace to grow and flourish for everyone — EVERYONE; it’s just about being fair,” adds Allen.
Next on Byron Allen’s list — bringing back the family variety show. With comedy, entertainment and content creation running through his veins, he's putting celebrity talent back on prime time. TheGrio Awards and NBC’s Feeding America Comedy Festival and Byron Allen Presents the Comedy and Music Superfest are delighting audiences, and Allen’s having a lot of fun, too.
Tune in on Saturday, May 27, at 8 p.m. for an encore performance of Byron Allen Presents, with additional specials following.
Allen’s philosophy is that life can be especially challenging, and you can’t have too many laughs. He makes sure he keeps them coming for his audiences and himself. As comedy is his first love and what opened up an incredible life for him, he keeps it fresh by coming up with material for his show Funny You Should Ask.
“I love comedy, and I’ll always be a part of it,” he says. “My friends who dedicated their lives to making people laugh are very important to me. It’s a big part of what we do at AMG, and I think you’ll see us do more of it as a company. And the audience loves it. The audience is hungry for laughter — the world needs more laughter.”
Allen has ventured far and wide since his big break as the youngest stand-up coming to perform on the legendary TONIGHT SHOW Starring Johnny Carson, and there are constants in his life that make him the proudest: his relationships with family and friends and pursuing his vision with amazing people along the way who understand it and work together to achieve it.
With approximately 2,400 employees, he takes a moment to reflect and recognize their considerable contributions. “These are very hardworking, smart, talented people dedicated to doing great work. They share in my vision and want to achieve it. That is key, very key.”
What is Allen’s vision? To build the world’s largest media company while at the same time effectuating change for the greater good by using the incredible leverage that media brings to give people the viewpoint to think about things differently, see things in a way where perhaps they have not seen before, and to get them to move in that direction of one to make us all stronger together. It’s a simple concept — One America. And that all started with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
To Allen, to get to that One America, we must all work towards what he calls the five Es, where everybody has a high-quality education, equal justice, economic inclusion, environmental protection and empathy. Everyone is deserving.
Like the industrialists who built our country, Allen is at the helm of media’s digital revolution and a strong role model who exemplifies what it means to be a genuine human who knows how to lead. That young man from Detroit still lives within Byron Allen, propelling him forward as the country’s leader of Black-owned media in America who acknowledges those who helped him along the way. He passes it down through service, mindfulness and ideation where business is being built, and he does it with laughter at his core.
Thirty years down, and Byron Allen is just warming up.