Comcast, Sony Hatch Horror Net

Apr 10, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Jon Lafayette and Jay Sherman

Diane Robina has big plans for Halloween this year. She’s going to dress up as Tippi Hedren’s character from Alfred Hitchcock’s terror classic “The Birds,” one of her favorite scary movies. That day she’s also planning to launch a new channel for Comcast and Sony Pictures Television loaded with horror movies and eerie TV shows.

“It’s going to get scary for the next six months trying to get this all up and going, but Sony’s a great partner; they have a great library,” said Ms. Robina, Comcast’s president of emerging networks.

Last year, Sony, Comcast and a group of private equity firms partnered to acquire the MGM library for about $5 billion. The object was to start new networks, and Sony and Comcast executives believed that horror was a genre in which no one else had staked a claim and one that offers a lot of potential.

“We always thought there were some great ideas, and this was at the top of the list,” said Steve Mosko, president of SPT.

The still-unnamed channel will be introduced today at the National Show in Atlanta. It will launch on video-on-demand and the Internet. There are no plans at this time to start a linear channel.

“What you’ll see from us is a little bit of a redefinition of what we mean by a channel,” Mr. Mosko said.

From Wall Street’s perspective, Comcast’s decision to make the horror channel available on VOD is consistent with analysts’ expectations for the cable operator and its strategies for increasing the popularity of VOD.

“It’s no secret that their first agenda is video-on-demand,” said Craig Moffett, a media analyst with Bernstein Research. “They’ve been looking for every available opportunity to advance VOD as the way you watch TV.”

Mr. Moffett pointed out that this is not the first such move from Comcast. The operator and PBS’s jointly launched children’s channel, PBS Kids Sprout, started out as a VOD channel before becoming linear.

Decision to Launch

Comcast’s decision to launch a channel comes at a time when a number of investors and Wall Street analysts are questioning whether cable operators should enter the content business at all.

The issue came up recently because Comcast is in the process of negotiating with The Walt Disney Co. to buy the 40 percent of E! Entertainment Television that it doesn’t already own. Some investors have made it clear that Comcast’s best content strategy would be to create channels and leverage its subscriber base, rather than buy an existing channel.

Ms. Robina, whose primary charge is to create new Comcast-owned programming services, said, “We have the right resources between Sony and Comcast to properly build this [horror channel]. And we do believe that we can grow a meaningful ad sales business on the on-demand side and on the Internet side.”

Ad sales for the new channel will be handled by Comcast Network Sales, and “Internet advertising is booming right now,” Ms. Robina added.

Video will also be available on the channel’s Web site. “The hope is we’ll have the ability to download movies on the Web site,” she said. But at first the site might have only trailers and other DVD-like extras. “I don’t know if people are using the Internet site to watch a whole two-hour movie, but we will offer some of that there and see how it goes.”

The site will also have chat rooms, fan clubs, blogs, user-generated material and other original content.

“There’s a huge following in this area and I think it will bring some people here you won’t expect,” Mr. Mosko said.

The network will also have a wireless arm with horror ringtones, sound effects and other creepy features.

At the National Show, Comcast will pitch the VOD network to other operators. And eventually it might grow into a linear channel, Ms. Robina said.

“We may try nesting a few hours a day on some other linear channels,” she said.

When she arrived at Comcast eight months ago, Ms. Robina liked the idea of a horror channel, but given her background at MTV Networks, where she helped launch Ha!, TV Land and the new TNN, she ordered up some research on horror. She found that horror films generated about $1 billion at movie box offices last year and appeal to the 18- to 34-year-old demographic, with a sweet spot among 18- to 24-year-olds. Those consumers are already big on using VOD and loading programs onto their iPods, she said.

The channel will also feature TV series, even though successful TV horror series have been scarce. Series including both the old and new “The Outer Limits,” “Poltergeist,” and “Dead Like Me” are in the MGM-Sony library. Ms. Robina suggested the channel might re-shoot scripts from “The Outer Limits” to create original programming.