Digi-Channels Enjoy Brave New Post-DTV World

Multicast nets get noisy response from new viewers
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For stations, getting calls from hundreds of viewers on and around June 12 spelled a nightmare. For digital channels such as Retro Television and This TV, hearing from the masses in the dawn of fully digital television hinted at how big the multicast business might get.

Retro Television (now RTV instead of the former RTN) got more than 1,000 calls and 11,000 e-mails in the days following the switch, says RTV executive Neal Ardman (RTV employees do not have formal job titles). On June 12, RTV drew more than double the Web traffic of any previous one-day total—not to mention record numbers of ShamWows sold through direct response. “It's been absolutely insane—people are rescanning and they're finding us,” Ardman says. “Thousands of viewers are saying, 'We found you, what's your schedule?'”

While digital-network executives expected the June 12 date to be good for buzz—and for business—many say that what transpired in the week and a half since then far surpassed their expectations. Between viewer rescanning and the ubiquitous media accounts regarding digital television, so much light has been shed on multicast channels that many are confident they can finally ring up substantial revenue for partner stations.

“There's been a lot of channel surfing and a lot of press about digital channels,” says John Bryan, MGM Studios Executive VP of broadcast strategy, who manages This TV. “You've got a lot of people saying, 'Hmmm…I wonder what this is.' The stations that are up and running with them can take advantage of this interest.”

Eclectic landscape

The digital-channel landscape is colorful. It includes everything from Spanish-language offerings like LATV and Mexicanal to jock fare such as Untamed Sports and Universal Sports.

In the race to sign up station partners, RTV, which marks its fourth anniversary next week, has 88 affiliates currently on-air (it recently inked deals with Multicultural Broadcasting stations in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco), while This TV has 70 on air since it launched in November. Among the Hispanic channels, LATV has 28 affiliates and Mexicanal has eight, while newcomer Estrella signed up four Belo stations last month.

Looking to join them are the likes of Urban Television and .2, the latter scheduling an early October launch after multiple postponed debuts. Richard Schilg, president/CEO of .2, says the entertainment channel plans to have 20 partners at launch, and believes it'll be much easier to bring them on board in the fully digital world. “Now that consumers are clued into the digital revolution, so to speak, and are aware these channels are available to them,” he says, “it prompts stations to get involved with second, third or even fourth channels.”

Some stations have passed on the national networks and put their own programming on the digital tier. It was no coincidence that Dispatch Broadcasting's WBNS Columbus picked June 12 to launch its Doppler 10 Now channel. WBNS President/General Manager Tom Griesdorn says research always reveals how hungry viewers are for local content—and for weather. And so, with help from AccuWeather, WBNS hatched a local weather channel.

“We figured that if we're getting people all excited about digital television, maybe we can give them something more than just DTV,” Griesdorn says. “It also allows us to maximize our investment in equipment and meteorologists.”

From potential to real revenue

Many broadcasters remain unconvinced that multicast channels will produce meaningful revenue any time soon. But the principals behind the channels say the time is nigh for potential revenue to turn into actual cash.

Bryan says a station partnering with This TV, which offers affiliates a 50-50 barter split, can do more than $1 million in revenue in a year. Mexicanal Senior VP of Sales Chuck Wing also offers up seven-figure benchmarks for stations in robust Hispanic markets, and says even partners in markets where the Hispanic community isn't as established, such as Boise, can bank a few hundred thousand yearly. “It's dollars they did not have before,” Wing says.

With June 12 in the rear-view mirror, the DTV stories in the media have subsided and channel surfing has slowed. But the digital channels continue to promote their goods. WBNS is using Dispatch's newspapers and radio stations to spread the word about its weather channel. This TV is touting summer stunt programming, such as a night dedicated to Burt Reynolds' cinematic masterpieces.

RTV, meanwhile, is hoping the thousands of mid-June callers and e-mailers will turn into regular viewers of That's Incredible! and Magnum, P.I. “It's been a phenomenal ride the last few days,” Ardman said last week. “All of a sudden, we're not the stepchild anymore.”

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michael.malone@reedbusiness.com

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