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HD the New Route to Carriage

Jun 29, 2008  •  Post A Comment

A new cable network about fishing found the right lure to get national carriage: content in high definition.
The Toronto-based World Fishing Network was one of 22 HD channels Dish Network added to its lineup last month; Dish accounts for the bulk of the channel’s U.S. distribution.
“Fishing looks spectacular in HD,” said WFN President Mark Rubinstein.

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Alluring Image An angler casts his line, all in high definition. The World Fishing Network, picked up by Dish Network, is banking on the crisp image being a draw for viewers.

The other HD feeds added by Dish range from giants like Disney Channel, USA and CNN to relatively new brands like MGM, Hallmark Movie Channel and Smithsonian Channel.
At a time when cable operators and satellite services are reluctant to spend money to add new linear channels, high definition is the key to building carriage.
In their battle with cable, both Dish and its satellite rival DirecTV are stockpiling HD programming as consumers become more and more aware of the need for new sets when the broadcast industry converts to digital in February.
“I would say that for an independent programmer, HD is an opportunity for them to get another chance to get carriage,” said Eric Sahl, senior VP of programming for Dish Network. “We are taking a look at every HD product that’s out there.”
Big companies such as Comcast and NBC Universal also are creating new HD channels to meet the demand from satellite services and, to a lesser degree, cable operators.
Comcast, which now offers an HD channel that combines programming from its Golf Channel and Versus, is creating a separate HD version of each network.
Similarly, NBCU, which programs an HD service called Universal HD, last year was asked by DirecTV to create a simulcast version of USA Network in HD. Dish also added USA, Sci Fi Channel and Bravo HD channels last month.
“We believe that as many as 30 million subscribers are going to convert to HD in 2008, and we’re certainly trying to position ourselves to be ready for the fall and winter selling season,” Mr. Sahl said.
While it’s a priority to get HD simulcasts of established networks up as soon as possible, Mr. Sahl said he’s also looking “very closely at new programmers that have HD feeds to try to get our package more robust.”
Mr. Sahl recalled talking to Tom Hayden at the Smithsonian Channel before it launched. A joint venture between the museum and CBS’ Showtime unit, the channel was thinking about launching as a VOD service, but changed its strategy to HD after the conversation.
“My guess is Tom went back, talked internally and took it to heart, because we also launched them and they’ve been successful at getting carriage on the other DBS platform as well,” Mr. Sahl said.
High definition also is providing some traction for Crown Media’s new Hallmark Movie Channel, which last week was picked up by Cox Cable.
“I think [HD] clearly is replacing all the heat and hoopla around video-on-demand for the last two or three years now,” said Crown Media CEO Henry Schleiff. “This seems to be the marketing weapon.”
The Hallmark Movie Channel in HD was launched in April; Mr. Schleiff expects it to be in between 15 million and 20 million homes by the end of the year.
“It has gotten a better reception than we had even anticipated and is ahead of our own internal aggressive rollout plans,” he said.
For Hallmark, the HD channel appears to be creating a halo effect that has helped the company attract new advertisers, Mr. Schleiff said.
For the World Fishing Network, which entered the U.S. market last year, getting carriage on Dish is like landing a 500-pound blue marlin.
The network’s only other carriage agreement in the U.S. is with Verizon’s FiOS service, but Mr. Rubinstein said WFN is in the process of finalizing some additional distribution agreements.
“It’s been positive to see an affirmation from a distribution marketplace where it takes a while for new networks to try to get the kind of distribution they think they deserve,” he said.
When WFN heard Dish was interested in HD, the company rushed to put together an HD channel for a May launch, instead of the fall launch it had planned.
WFN had been in the process of acquiring series in HD, but “we had to accelerate all of that,” Mr. Rubinstein said.
“We shoot a lot of our shows all over North America, so there’s a fair amount of travel planning and schedule planning that also got accelerated. So it’s really doing what we thought we’d have six months to do in roughly 30 to 45 days,” he said. “The good news is we now have a really brilliant HD channel that I think will give us additional traction in the marketplace.”
WFN was launched in Canada in 2005. It’s operated by Insight Sports, whose principal owners include Larry Tannenbaum, who also owns stakes in the Toronto Raptors and Maple Leafs. Insight holds interests in GolTV and the NHL Network.
The idea of a fishing network works on the same principal as the Tennis Network or the Golf Network, giving fans of a sport a place to turn between the big tournaments that are carried by the general-interest broadcasters or cable networks.
And, according to Mr. Rubinstein, the fishing market is huge.
“I always talk about it as the 50-50 rule,” he said. “There’s 50 million people who do it and there’s $50 billion spent on it annually.”
Programming on the network is built around original HD programming and home-grown celebrities.
One show, “Reel Road Trip,” is hosted by Mark Melnyk, who travels around fishing spots in North America introducing viewers to some of the sport’s personalities.
Another show, “Hooked Up,” is built around the fishing lifestyle and highlights great fishing locations. It’s hosted by Mariko Izumi, the daughter of Wayne Izumi and niece of Bob Izumi, the half-Scottish, half-Japanese brothers who have dominated the world of professional angling, Mr. Rubinstein said.
That means that in addition to looking good in a pair of hip-waders, Ms. Izumi has credibility thanks to her family background, he said.
WFN also has a show with a host who fulfills the network’s need for a “hunk factor,” Mr. Rubinstein said. Charlie Moore, known as the Mad Fisherman, hosts a competition show called “Beat Charlie Moore.”
“He’s as slick as they come in terms of looks and having women interested in going out in a boat with him,” Mr. Rubinstein said.
Mr. Moore is also a comedian who has a deal with a major U.S. studio to develop a sitcom.
“I think they’ve got a ton of potential,” said Mr. Sahl of Dish. “They are exclusively fishing, and it’s a pretty good base with our [subscriber] base.”
By giving WFN a carriage deal, he adds, “They’ll have more revenue now to invest in their content.”

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