News Column

TV station sues Greensboro for $50M over withdrawn loan

June 19, 2014

By Joe Gamm, News & Record, Greensboro, N.C.

June 19--Updated 11:27 p.m.

GREENSBORO -- A year ago, it seemed like a local company that bills itself as North Carolina's first black-owned television station was poised to produce the next hit African American sitcom.

On Wednesday, that sitcom appeared fated to turn into a courthouse drama, when the owners of Black Network Television accused the Greensboro City Council of denying the production a loan based on racial prejudice.

BNT owners Michael and Ramona Woods sued the city, seeking more than $50 million in connection with a loan the city had approved for the sitcom but then pulled.

Willie Gary, the attorney representing the Woods, said during a news conference that members of the council "orchestrated a scheme" to prevent the station from growing because of jealousy, hate and discrimination."

The Woods' suit, filed in the Guilford County Courthouse, names the city and council members Tony Wilkins, Nancy Hoffmann, Zack Matheny, Marikay Abuzuaiter, T. Dianne Bellamy-Small and Nancy Vaughan as defendants. Vaughan is now mayor, and Bellamy-Small is out of politics.

"I adamantly disagree with any insinuation that City Council makes its decisions based on race," Vaughan said in a news release.

The Woods brought in a well-known team to BNT's Eugene Street Studios to film the first 13 episodes of "Whatcha Cookin'?" The director was Kim Fields, better known as Tootie from the 1980s NBC sitcom "The Facts of Life," and the series featured BernNadette Stanis, who played Thelma on CBS's "Good Times," and Smokie Norful, a Grammy Award-winning gospel singer.

The station, which transmits public affairs, sports and entertainment to 28 counties in North Carolina and Virginia, according to its website, launched in 2011.

It's an outgrowth of the couple's successful Ashtae Products, a hair-care company with more than 500,000 customers. The couple worked with the CW network to cast "America's Top Model" in 2009. A year later CW wanted to develop Channel 20.02 and offered it to the Woods, who accepted.

When planning "Whatcha Cookin'?" the Woods hired a syndicator and envisioned the sitcom would air on TVs in urban markets around the country. At the time, the Woods estimated producing 13 episodes would cost $1 million.

In June 2013, the council voted to let the city negotiate a $300,000 loan, but in July, the council reversed its decision. The Woods had pledged their $975,000 home as collateral, but a title search turned up a second mortgage that council members didn't expect.

In early November, the company sent the city a demand letter seeking unspecified damages.

"We were on our way to doing great things for Greensboro," Michael Woods said at a news conference Wednesday morning.

Gary, the Woods' attorney, said shows under development at the time could have taken the company nationwide. He said its growth could have rivaled that of Black Entertainment Television, which reportedly sold for $3 billion in 2000.

"This is a fight that we did not want," Gary said. "They decided to fight, so we put the boxing gloves on."

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Updated 11:45 a.m.

GREENSBORO -- City officials denied allegations of discrimination made against them in a lawsuit filed this morning.

In a statement released this morning, Mayor Nancy Vaughan refuted an allegation that the City Council makes decisions based on race.

The owners of Black Network Television sued the city today, seeking more than $50 million in connection with a loan the city approved for the station, then pulled.

Michael and Ramona Woods filed suit today in the Guilford County Courthouse, naming Greensboro and council members Tony Wilkins, Nancy Hoffman, Zack Matheny, Marikay Abuzuaiter, T. Dianne Bellamy-Small and Nancy Vaughan as defendants. Vaughan is now mayor and Bellamy-Small is out of politics.

In June last year, the City Council voted to let the city negotiate a $300,000 loan to the station for development of a new situation comedy. In July, the council reversed its decision. The Woods had pledged their $975,000 home as collateral, but a title search turned up a second mortgage that council members didn't expect.

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Posted 10:38 a.m.

GREENSBORO -- The owners of Black Network Television sued the city today, seeking more than $50 million in connection with a loan the city approved for the station, then pulled.

Michael and Ramona Woods filed suit today in the Guilford County Courthouse, naming Greensboro and council members Tony Wilkins, Nancy Hoffman, Zack Matheny, Marikay Abuzuaiter, T. Dianne Bellamy-Small and Nancy Vaughan as defendants. Vaughan is now mayor and Bellamy-Small is out of politics.

In June last year, the City Council voted to let the city negotiate a $300,000 loan to the station for development of a new situation comedy. In July, the council reversed its decision. The Woods had pledged their $975,000 home as collateral, but a title search turned up a second mortgage that council members didn't expect.

About Nov. 1, the company sent the city a demand letter seeking unspecified damages.

"We were on our way to doing great things for Greensboro," Michael Woods said at a news conference this morning.

Willie Gary, the attorney representing the Woods, said during the news conference that members of the council "orchestrated a scheme" to prevent the station from growing because of jealousy, hate and discrimination.

"This is a fight that we did not want," Gary said. "They decided to fight, so we put the boxing gloves on."

City officials watched the news conference, but did not respond to questions, saying they had not had time to review the complaint. Vaughan is expected to release a statement about the lawsuit this afternoon, spokesman Donnie Turlington said.

Contact Joe Gamm at (336) 373-7090, and follow @joegammNR on Twitter.

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(c)2014 the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.)

Visit the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.) at www.news-record.com

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Source: News & Record (Greensboro, NC)


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