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Rival Cable Nets Offer Differing Views of Reality

Jan 5, 2004  •  Post A Comment

From a programming and company perspective, Reality TV and Reality Central appear to be two networks with very little in common.
Reality TV is a 4-year-old channel owned by the U.K.-based Zone Vision Group that’s distributed to about 38 million homes. With successful footholds in markets across Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America, the network is expanding to the United States by offering a slate packed with caught-on-tape dramas such as “COPS” and “Rescue 911,” as well as select titles from its extensive library of foreign fare. Earlier this month, the network launched on EchoStar, its first domestic carrier.
“This is the last and final step in building our global network,” said Zone Vision Chairman and President Chris Wronski. “The channel has been extremely successful everywhere so I’m sure we’ll be successful here as well.”
Reality Central, on the other hand, is a recently hatched project with plenty of executive heft but little in the way of ready-made programming. Headed by former E! Networks President Larry Namer and chaired by USA Networks founder Kay Koplovitz, the channel promises to dissect and present pop-culture-based reality shows in the vein of “Survivor” and “Fear Factor.” The network is funded by private equity through Jeffries Capital Partners, with a $25 million initial two-year financing round. The network promises to announce carriage agreements with two major cable operators by the end of the year and plans to launch in mid-2004.
“[The networks] have entirely different programming and different philosophies,” Mr. Namer said. “Their stuff is cops and trauma and good-pets-gone-bad. We’re totally pop-culture reality.”
But then there’s the matter of their names: Reality Central, Reality TV. With multiple system operator shelf space tight and a bewildering array of choices already available, industry analysts said having more than one “reality” network in the mix is problematic regardless of how each defines the genre.
“The confusion issue is going to be a big problem for everybody involved,” said Deana Myers, a senior analyst with Kagen World Media. “I can see them both being successful, but when they’re similarly named it’s difficult for the consumer, and even us in the industry. People had confusion with CNN and TNT.”
Mr. Namer agreed that carriers will be reluctant to sign both networks, but predicted his concept will ultimately prevail.
“If you went by Webster’s dictionary, they’re closer to what `reality TV’ means,” he said. “But if you go out on the street and ask people to name three reality shows, none would mention `Trauma: Life in the ER.’ Clearly the audience identifies with our version.”
Mr. Wronski took a different stance, noting, “There’s always room for good channels.”
At this sensitive stage of the game, MSOs contacted by TelevisionWeek declined to comment on the prospects for either network. In the war of words, however, Reality Central has managed to gain a larger media profile than Reality TV, despite the fact that it’s not on the air.
Mr. Wronski said his competitor’s press doesn’t bother him.
“I will always take a paid carriage vs. the front page of a newspaper,” he said. “We’re taking the opposite approach as Reality Central by concentrating on getting the first deal before pitching it across the market. We’ve never been after publicity, and so far we’re slightly ahead of those guys.”
The distribution did come at a price, however. Reality TV gave EchoStar a 20 percent equity stake in the network in return for carriage as part of a five-year agreement.
As for industry handicapping, cable programming consultant Ray Solley of The Solley Group gave Reality Central the edge.
“My sense right now, from a purely development and programming point of view, is that Reality Central is more intriguing,” he said.
However, he added, Reality Central also has a “tougher row to hoe” due to its plan to license popular reality content for reruns.
“Why would a producer or studio want to give up back-end to a channel that’s not proven at this point?” Mr. Solley asked. “If you license your product to a new network like Reality Central, will you make more money than if you turned it into your own Nick at Night?”
In the meantime, the name issue is expected to remain an annoyance for both networks as they struggle to define themselves in the marketplace. Not surprisingly, Mr. Namer has a solution to the dilemma.
“If I were them, I’d change my name,” he said. “We think it will cause confusion and hurt them.”
A Reality TV representative said the network has no plans to heed Mr. Namer’s request. However, the spokesperson offered a counterproposal: “Reality TV has been a worldwide brand for four years and has already launched in the United States. Maybe Namer should change the name of his channel.”