A Network for the People

Jul 7, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The America Channel, a proposed new 24/7 digital cable network targeted at and about middle America, intends not to wave a flag but to hold up a mirror.
“It’s not a political channel, not an issues channel [or a news channel],” said Rick Newberger, a principal in Vanguard Media Corp., which developed the channel’s business plan from the original idea brought in by Doron Gorshein, the industry veteran who is the new channel’s chairman and CEO.
The channel, which will be based in Orlando, Fla., is instead a “nonfiction entertainment channel” that will tell true “stories of America and Americans,” Mr. Newberger said.
The channel intends to launch in the second quarter of 2004, with approximately 3 million subscribers.
Programming America
Programming the channel expects to launch with includes “American Stories,” a series about ordinary people with extraordinary accomplishments; “America From Afar,” which will look at what media in other countries say about America; “Campus Report,” a series by and about college students who will be equipped with cameras to document their lives and campuses; “Road Trip,” a series in which a 20-something couple explores the country; “Occupational Hazard,” a series about Americans with dangerous or unusual jobs; “Faces of America,” a series of profiles focusing on different ethnic, religious and political groups; and “Personal Quest,” a reality series about young Americans striving to achieve their American dreams.
At this early stage of its development, the network’s proposed series are not yet cast or even attached to producers and production entities. Similarly, the network does not yet have distribution deals or advertisers on board, though Mr. Gorshein said that advanced discussions are under way with major multiple system operators and agencies representing “blue chip and heritage companies who want a great corporate image buy.”
Plans for “Road Trip,” for example, call for putting its 20-something wanderers into a Hummer H2, but if another automotive sponsor wants to step up, the pair will get a different set of high-profile wheels.
The network is targeting a broad adult audience. Plans are to “aggregate” that audience from the 18- to 64-year-old “bucket,” with different programs having different specific audience appeals, according to Waller Capital VP Andrew Kessler, an advisor to the channel, who also noted that in some instances even high-schoolers, younger than 18, might be attracted to planned programs such as “Campus Report.”
As for the competition, it’s “bits and pieces” of TLC, Home & Garden, Discovery, A&E and even MTV,” said Mr. Kessler.
“Just like there was news before CNN, there’s America Channel-like stuff [on television] before The America Channel,” Mr. Kessler added, citing TLC’s popular “Trading Spaces” as an example. “We view it as a validation of the interest … for this type of content,” he said.
Comfortably Funded
The new network is “comfortably funded,” Mr. Gorshein said. “We have investment coming in continuously.” The network’s “seed money [is] coming in primarily from technology, banking and media,” he added, declining to offer additional specifics.
The network does benefit from its associations with both Vanguard Media, an established media advisory firm that specializes in network and other start-ups, and Waller Capital Corp., the investment banker that is acting as the network’s strategic and financial advisor. Also on board is Brad Marks, chairman and CEO of Brad Marks International, the Los Angeles-based head-hunting firm that specializes in the entertainment and media businesses.
“Initially, it’s going to be CEO, CFO, possibly COO,” said Mr. Marks of the senior-staff search he is undertaking for the channel.
Both Vanguard’s Mr. Newberger and Waller’s Mr. Kessler emphasized that their respective firms are regularly pitched new cable channels, but they only take on a small fraction of the would-be channels whose executives come in to make their case.
“We get pitched a lot,” said Mr. Kessler, who noted that at this year’s recent national cable convention in Chicago “probably a dozen-plus digital channels” were on offer and competing for carriage. “We see a lot of these and we pass,” he added.
“Don’t be surprised if The America Channel is like that dark horse in a horse race and just starts way back there and then wins the race,” Mr. Newberger said. “This is a really big idea, and it resonates so thoroughly with the television viewer as something that they would like.”
What Mr. Kessler likes about the new channel is that it is “going to connect people with one another,” he said. “There really is nothing out there like that.”
Launching a new digital channel costs $50 million to $100 million and more, Mr. Kessler said. Crucial issues for The America Channel as well as for its new-channel competitors include distribution, commitments from national advertisers and financing.
Digging for Distribution
“We will not be seeking a large institutional round [of investment] until we have carriage [deals in place],” Mr. Kessler said. “Carriage helps valuation.”
Carriage also attracts advertisers, who are wary of making commitments to a channel before it has distribution in place, according to one senior Madison Avenue figure, who pegged chances of success for The America Channel at slightly better than 50/50.
Mr. Kessler agreed that securing distribution was the primary goal for the network at this stage of its development.
“When something truly original comes across, we embrace it in a big way,” Mr. Kessler said. “We will then open up our roster of relationships and get the MSOs and the satellite guys excited about carriage.”
Not every multiple system operator is excited yet. The channel has a “slim” shot of gaining carriage, according to the assessment of a senior executive at a major MSO. “It doesn’t seem to fit a need that is not already addressed by other networks.”
The America Channel proposes to launch in a post-Sept. 11 world when Americans are “interested in connectivity, in community, in people,” Mr. Gorshein said. “This, effectively, is the ultimate form of reality TV.”