It's not unusual to see Steven Gaines sitting on a park bench in East Hampton, N.Y. A longtime resident of this swank seaside resort town, he is best known for penning a salacious tell-all on the millionaires who populate the exclusive east end of Long Island.
What's unusual is seeing him at 9:30 a.m. interviewing Mystic Mickey the Magician, who's trying to get a rabbit out of a box. As a TV camera rolls, he finally pulls a rabbit out, and Gaines seems relieved it's over. Off camera, the crew howls with approval and applause. It's all part of a goofy morning show segment for Plum TV, an unconventional new local cable channel that seeks the narrowest of niches: the posh vacation playgrounds of the rich and famous.
Started by a bottled-juice maker, a Hollywood film producer and a former NBC executive, Plum seeks to be what a local station is not—quirky and
informative. Its reach is minuscule—three holiday hotspots—Nantucket (since 2001), the Hamptons (since June 1) and Martha's Vineyard (mid-June). It's not clear if Plum's founders are behind a vanity project of if they're laying the groundwork for a bonafide business. For now, it's leasing time with local cable operators, forging creative sponsorship pacts and deploying a small army of teenage interns with handheld video cameras.
The programming is appropriately irreverent for a vacationing viewer. Gaines' 90-minute morning show is the cornerstone of Plum's Hamptons network, airing live Wednesday through Sunday. Aside from the magician, Gaines interviews a president of a local immigrants' rights group, a popular area fisherman and a representative from the local Shakespeare festival that morning.
The rest of Plum's programming grid is just as unconventional, with serious high school sports covered by extended chats with the neighborhood bartender. Original content includes celebrities such as actress Sophie Dahl, who narrates from her grandfather Roald Dahl's books for a kids' reading show, and socialite Patricia Duff, who opens her living room to the likes of Ron Silver, Mort Zuckerman and Rev. Al Sharpton on her political talk show, Duff Talk.
Plum has even dipped its toe in reality—comedic actor Bob Balaban just signed on to "Bob Builds His Dream House," which will capture the bumbling actor and fickle home decorator as he plans a mansion in Bridgehampton.
The high-income, power-elite audience demographic is Plum's biggest strength, says Plum principal Chris Glowacki, who left a 10-year stint at NBC to help found the channel. "[In the city,] they're interacting with media in the same way," he adds. "When you get them out here and introduce them to a new concept, you're hitting them when their defenses are down."
The original network was started by Nantucket Nectars founder Tom Scott, who had bought NTV, the local TV station in Nantucket, three years ago after leaving Nantucket Nectars. Scott was an old drinking buddy of Glowacki, who once headed business development for NBC interactive.
Independent film producer Cary Woods, a Hollywood type with 17 films to his production credit, including Scream, Swingers
and Rudy, was brought on for his creative flair and budget management skills (Swingers
was made for just $250,000). The men re-launched the channel as Plum this year and plan to expand to other markets such as Vail and Aspen, Colo., and Sun Valley, Idaho.
At Plum's headquarters in Wainscott, interns—some who have yet to graduate high school—play an integral role in the staff. Dubbed "predators" (producers/editors), they are responsible for shooting and editing much of Plum's original content. "A major part of why micro-television is possible today is because the costs have come down," Woods said. "There has been a colossal democratization of the entire process."
Indeed, the interns are unpaid, save for a summer bonus and free housing in a bungalow they share down the road. And they do their work on the cheap—shows are shot on mini-DV cameras, and editing is done on Final Cut Pro software for Macs.
To get carriage, Plum pays cable companies—Cablevision, Comcast and Adelphia—monthly fees to lease blocks of time. The channel airs 24 hours daily in Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. In the Hamptons, Plum runs Cablevision's local feed for several hours each week in the mornings and some evenings.
"The type of programming they provide is very beneficial to the island, both tourists and year-round residents," said Ted Maguire, marketing manager for Adelphia in Massachusetts where Plum is channel 76 in Martha's Vineyard. "They're professionals. It's a cut above" local access.
Fans say the time is ripe for Plum. "They've got a great shot of creating a new local model for the cable industry," said David Zaslav, president of NBC cable networks and a mentor of Glowacki's.
Not everyone is optimistic about Plum's chances. "I applaud their efforts and welcome anybody in the broadcast industry," said Greg Schimizzi, the owner of the local broadcast station in town, WVVH. " But to flesh out a 24-hour schedule is a Herculean task by any means. They just started and want to be everything for everybody, but they have to be patient."
Though it has yet to sign up many local advertisers, Plum has cultivated a short list of blue-chip sponsors who get far more than simple 30-second spots. J. Crew, for example, runs a single three-minute commercial for its clothing that Plum produced: teenagers running on the beach. J. Crew and the others, including Sentient Jets and Merrill Lynch, advertise on the network largely through "integrated content." Merrill's advisors are guests on the morning show, and J. Crew also sponsors a mini-show called Out and About with J. Crew
with khaki-clad preppies. J. Crew was founded by Scott's wife (and Woods' ex-wife) Emily Woods.
Though Glowacki declined to give details of Plum's finances, by comparison, WVVH—whose advertisers include Mercedes and Rolex—charges $115 per 30-second spot in prime time. Plum's sponsorship is seen another way at WVVH. Says Schimizzi, "Our primary mandate is to serve the community we're in. We're not owned by a clothing company."
Plum plans to be a hit past summer, with the help of a heavy rotation of local sports. "We didn't go out and raise $100 million and say we're gonna...be in 70 million homes in three years," Glowacki said. "The driving thing is the belief in creating quality local content."