Viacom vets make tennis net play


In one of few independent cable startups, a group of ex-Viacom executives is backing The Tennis Channel, a planned digital cable channel focused on the sport.

First-round investors include Frank Biondi, former president of Viacom, Universal and Home Box Office; Tom Dooley and Phillpe Dauman, also ex-presidents, plus Viacommers that go a lot further back, including Terry Elkes, CEO of Viacom back before Sumner Redsone bought control.

The network is being run by David Meister, an ex-HBO executive who was also former president of Financial News Network and advised Robert Redford in the startup of the Sundance Channel. Most importantly, the network has the backing of IMG, the key promoter and agent in professional tennis.

"Tennis is ripe. Television is ripe." Meister said, who has long been an active tennis player but still has a weak backhad.

The venture has more clout than money. So far, the investors have put up just a few million dollars to get things going, one insider said, and the operation will probably ultimately need $75 million or more. Biondi said the executives will be involved in working on additional financing rounds.

The network is similar to The Golf Channel and Speedvision, looking to subsist in the early day on low-profile tournaments early rounds of big tournaments that the broadcast nets and even ESPN have no interest in. But those matches can often feature major players, though generally not pitted against one another.

Meister sees 40% of the hours filled with matches, 40% with instructional shows and the remainder with news about tennis stars. Launch is scheduled for next summer and Meister wouldn't say what kind of a license fee he expects to charge operators. - John M. Higgins