The hunting and fishing trips on the Sportsman Channel take place nowhere near the concrete canyons of Manhattan. But the action that affected the channel's future the most took place there.
“I chased money on Wall Street,” President/CEO C. Michael Cooley says by phone from the channel's headquarters in Big Bend, Wis., a tiny suburb outside Milwaukee.
The Sportsman Channel beams hunting and fishing programming—and absolutely nothing else. By its calculation, it's seen in 14 million homes, up 1 million from last year. In many of those homes, the channel is available via broadcast stations that show its programming in overnight or weekend blocks rather than 24/7. Cooley says that the full-time-equivalent number is 4.7 million homes, more than 50% of them cable.
Last year, he went to New York to woo investors. “I made about 20 presentations … and we got close to terms from a handful, but we decided to step back,” he says. “We were just not at the right size, just not quite the right time … so I put that off a little bit.”
But at year's end, the InterMedia Group private- investment group headed by cable veteran Leo Hindery offered a level of experience and involvement that was just right, Cooley says. And the channel was getting somewhere on its own, having negotiated an overall deal with Comcast that allows it to seek carriage from local operators, which coincidentally is called a hunting license in the cable business.
In April, InterMedia signed on for an undisclosed multimillion-dollar minority investment in the channel, allowing Cooley and company to step up their game.
The channel is revving up plans for VOD, high- definition and Internet offerings. And it expects to benefit from big outdoor channel OLN's transition to a more general sports outlet called Versus.
“We were pretty much self-funded, on a shoestring budget,” Cooley says. “No marketing, no promoting, telemarketing to the cable industry instead of flying and going to see them.”
The InterMedia investment has provided “the operating capital to hire more people,” he says. “We now have a travel budget to go see the systems and do what we do best: explain what a great value proposition the Sportsman Channel is to operators on a system level, so we get distribution quicker.” —Joel Brown
Lime Gets Its Viewers in Slices
Health-focused programmer Lime is aiming to reach consumers other than television couch potatoes.
After launching last November, Lime—formerly Wisdom TV—has simultaneously sought distribution on linear cable, video-on-demand, the Internet, mobile and other platforms.
Its fare comprises healthy-lifestyle–focused programming—both acquired and original—on topics ranging from healthful cooking to natural pregnancy. CEO CJ Kettler, who learned how to launch a network when she was on the board for the 1999 start of Oxygen Media, says that, at a time when cable operators are strapped for bandwidth, any new network today has to take the multiplatform approach.
“It's more than just where you have to go,” she says. “It's where the consumer is going.”
Lime is now available in 7 million homes as a linear cable network on Comcast and on EchoStar's Dish Network; reaches 2 million more via VOD; offers 24 hours of radio programming to Sirius Satellite Radio; reaches mobile subscribers with content on Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel Inc.; and offers audio and video podcasts on iTunes.
Lime's Website, Lime.com, is on track to notch about half a million unique visitors per month by year's end and has increased its unique visitors by 300% in the past three months. The site programs video clips on everything from abs-building to baby massage to sex and spirituality. Advertisers online include Netflix, Wild Oats and Pet Promise.—Anne Becker
Reelz Ready for Its Close-Up
Rod Perth is one guy who doesn't think the public is already saturated with information about the movies.
“They're not short on information about gossip or the red carpet or the veneer of show business,” says Perth, president of new Reelz Channel and a former USA and CBS executive. “But we have ample research that proves they are absolutely looking for a place that aggregates more depth about the whole process of moviemaking and movie production, helping them find movies and learn more about movies.”
Satellite and cable network Reelz Channel launches Sept. 27 in 28 million homes with information about movies at the cineplex, on DVD and—perhaps more important—on premium cable, PPV and VOD.
Most of the initial distribution comes from DirecTV and the Dish Network, but Reelz has signed master agreements with Comcast, Time Warner and others.
“It took us the better part of six years to get all those deals in place,” says Stanley Hubbard, chairman/CEO of Hubbard Media Group, the network's sole owner. (Reelz was announced as Moviewatch in 2000.)
“I think they'll make it because they've got really broad distribution and their programming costs are going to be really low,” says Derek Baine, senior analyst for Kagan Research LLC. Other networks “have that cash bleed while they get to 20 million or 30 million subs, but [Reelz has] a pretty marginal cost.”
The hook for cable operators: Twice-hourly interstitials will tell viewers about movies they can watch immediately on VOD, localized for cable operators via servers installed at headends.
A nightly three-hour program block will hit the air at 6, highlighted by Dailies, which Perth calls “ the home base for the network … a show that is to this network what SportsCenter is to ESPN.” Film critic/historian Leonard Maltin hosts another program.
“We're going to drill more deeply. “We are not the E! channel, and I say that with great respect to the E! channel,” says Perth. “They do a great job at what they do, but that's not what we're going to do.”—Joel Brown
A couple of stats suggest there's a business for the new games-on-demand network TVHead.
Of the 30,000 digital-cable customers who have access to TVHead in test markets, 57% have at least tried its free game offerings. And 24% of them became paying customers.
“We're the next generation of networks,” says CEO Sangita Verma. “What we've created is enabling technology, which is basically high-efficiency game servers that plug into the existing VOD infrastructure and allow us to deliver our games like a VOD network.”
In tests, card games and “casual” videogame staples like Tetris are mainstays of the channel. Customers can choose a free service with limited games and features or pay for a monthly subscription that gives bells and whistles. A cross-platform rollout is expected to eventually connect players to others on the Internet.
The network is moving toward a full rollout early in 2007. TVHead is currently working on deals with operators. Subscription services are pegged at $4.95 and $5.95 monthly in the six test markets; the channel also tested a daily rate starting at $1.
Ads appear on both the free and subscription levels, primarily as short interstitials of 5-15 seconds between games and game levels. No subscription fees pass to or from the cable operators, but some split of revenue is under discussion.
“Games are a new programming genre that their customers are leaving TV to go play somewhere else,” whether on a console, computer or mobile device, Verma reasons. “By being able to offer these casual games, cable operators are keeping their customers at the TV where they can monetize them.”—Joel Brown
Boo! FEARnet To the Web, Not Cable
With linear-distribution opportunities all but maxed out, Comcast and Sony Pictures Entertainment are hoping to scare up subscribers for a different kind of programming service: a VOD and Internet-only horror channel called FEARnet.
The network, slated to launch on Halloween, has no linear component attached. It is the first of several planned networks jointly owned by Comcast and Sony. It will launch on all of Comcast's VOD systems—about 10 million subscribers. FEARnet will also debut as a free Website for horror fans with streaming video, a searchable database and other features, including a ghoulish community bulletin board.
The ad-supported service is an outgrowth of the sale of MGM. Sony and Comcast, with private-equity investors, took control of the studio last year. As part of the deal, they are building cable networks using the Sony and MGM libraries. Comcast is managing the new channels under President of Emerging Networks Diane Robina, who unveiled the horror network with Sony Pictures Television President Steve Mosko at last year's NCTA National Show.
FEARnet's initial content will be movie and TV thrillers. Comcast and Sony hope to get in on the popularity the horror genre has seen in box-office sales: Scary movies made up 20% of the feature films released by major studios in 2005, one in three debuted at No. 1, and together they grossed more than $1 billion, Comcast says.
The Internet component will feature horror-film outtakes, music downloads and animation. Of course, scary ringtones are in the game plan.—Anne Becker
Can a niche network launched 10 months ago in just 16,000 homes in Aiken, S.C., become a profitable venture? George Greenberg thinks so.
The chairman/CEO of The HorseTV Channel entices cable and satellite operators to carry the network by seeking no license fee and offering an attractive revenue share. Distributors make the channel available à la carte to customers willing to pay $5 a month; then the parties spilt the revenues 50-50.
“Our whole concept is revenue generation for our distribution partners,” Greenberg says.
So far, only small system operators have signed on, putting the network devoted to all things equestrian in fewer than 100,000 homes. Greenberg says a deal signed with a leading operator will make it available in millions more homes this fall. He declined to identify the operator.
“If we were to launch an emerging network,” says Sean O'Donnell, regional VP for Bresnan Communications, a small operator in four Western states, “that would certainly be one that we would carefully consider.”
Greenberg says research shows there are 13 million homes with an interest in some aspect of the equestrian lifestyle—and the network will break even if it can persuade 500,000 to pony up the $5 fee each month.
One reason is low fees for such events as the World Equestrian Games and national high school rodeo finals. Also, as a subscription network, HorseTV can market to a big stable of horse fans. Programming features polo, show jumping and steeplechase.
“We are like the Golf Channel is to the golfer,” Greenberg says. “Clearly, however, this is a smaller market.”—David Goetzl