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Battle Lines Drawn Over Military Nets

Jan 3, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The muskets are loaded and the Messerschmitts are ready for takeoff as cable giants A&E Networks and Discovery Communications go to war with new military channels.

A&E’s History Channel this week is announcing plans to launch the Military History Channel, a 24/7 digital network that will begin a free preview for cable operators Jan. 5. A hard launch of the channel is scheduled for the spring.

History Channel’s offensive starts just weeks after Discovery announced plans to convert its Discovery Wings Channel to the Military Channel effective Jan. 10.

In a battleground of limited channel space where even established networks fight for distribution, it’s unclear whether two separate military channels can accumulate enough carriage and viewers to thrive.

History Channel USA President Dan Davids said the launch of Military History Channel was neither a sneak attack nor a retaliatory strike.

“We put a two-night block on History International to incubate it with the plans of rolling out to a full channel and doing video-on-demand,” Mr. Davids said. The block went on the air in March, and A&E planned to launch the Military History Channel sometime after the launch of History Channel en Espa%F1;ol, which premiered in July and is now in 300,000 homes.

Mr. Davids said the caliber of shows each channel airs will ultimately determine the winner of the battle.

“It’s really a function of the programming. I don’t know what they’re going to put on there. They basically had aviation history,” Mr. Davids said. “When you look at what we’re launching with, with `The Battle History of the U.S. Army,’ `The Navy,’ `The Air Force,’ `The Marines,’ if you look at the series we have, everything from `Sea Tales’ to `Foot Soldiers,’ `Sworn to Secrecy,’ `Century of Warfare,’ we have a wealth of product and I think product that will really resonate with the military history documentary viewer.”

A spokesperson for Discovery had no comment on the Military History Channel.

Behind the Lines

When Discovery announced its plans to transition from Wings to the Military Channel, it said its revamped schedule would take viewers behind the lines to tell the personal stories of servicemen and women. The channel also plans to look at military technology, battlefield strategy, aviation and history.

In its first night on the air, The Military Channel will air the world television premiere of “Task Force Red Dog,” which tells the story of a unit of Marine Corps reservists called to active duty and sent to the front lines in Afghanistan. Another special airing that night is “Delta Company,” which follows a Marine tank battalion on its push to Baghdad.

Discovery starts off with a big advantage in distribution. Wings, launched in 1998, is in about 35 million homes, according to Kagan Research, generating about $13.3 million in net ad revenue and $16 million in license fees from cable operators in 2004. With programming expenses estimated at about $10.5 million and total expenses at about $18.3 million, the network generated cash flow of $11.7 million last year, Kagan estimated. Before the change to Military Channel was announced, Kagan estimated that Wings’ cash flow would nearly double to $23.3 million in 2005.

In contrast, Mr. Davids said the Military History Channel does not have any carriage deals signed. He’s expecting the open preview, which will run from Jan. 5 to April 2, to be as exciting to operators as the smell of napalm in the morning.

The terms under which the channel will be offered to advertisers were not disclosed.

Mr. Davids declined to give the cost of launching the Military History Channel, but he indicated it would be economical because of A&E Networks’ existing infrastructure and its existing programming library.

“A&E can do it very cheaply, but not any cheaper than Discovery,” said Derek Baine, senior analyst at Kagan.

Military programming has been a popular part of the cable programming arsenal since the early days of A&E. When it launched, the History Channel was practically the World War II channel.

“We had quite a bit of military history documentaries on A&E,” Mr. Davids said. “They migrated over to the History Channel, and then, as the History Channel has expanded into all areas of history besides military-whether it be architectural or archaeological or the history of technology, the history of politics, the history of religion-the amount of military history documentaries that we have had on the channel has been reduced by quite a bit.”

Mr. Davids said, “A lot of our core viewers have written us letters saying, `Gee, we’d like to see more of this,’ so launching the block on History International was good and received a good reception.”

History International, now in 30 million homes, does not subscribe to Nielsen Media Research for ratings.

No Cannibals Here

While at one time it appeared that The History Channel was cannibalizing male viewers from A&E, Mr. Davids said that is no longer a concern. He noted that even with more channels-History, History International, Biography and The History Channel en Espanol-ratings for both A&E and the History Channel are up more than 10 percent this year.

Mr. Baine of Kagan also downplayed the cannibalization issues. “One would think logically this would happen, but look at all of the Discovery spinoffs that have been launched, and it’s still smooth sailing for the mother ship,” he said.

Military programming-like the rest of History’s programming-appeals especially to male viewers. History Channel’s viewership is 72 percent male and vies with ESPN as the most testosterone-rich audience in TV.

And the channel will have more competition than Discovery’s Military Channel for those male viewers.

History Channel plans to support the new Military History Channel with cross-promotion. Mr. Davids will run the channel and it will be programmed by the staff that handles the other channels in his group.