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Cable Operators

Comcast Fuels Hope At Indie Networks

12/05/2009 2:03 AM Eastern

Independently-owned cable networks are cautiously optimistic about Comcast’s pledge to offer greater carriage opportunities in the wake of last week’s Comcast-NBC Universal joint-venture agreement.

In an effort to help smooth the regulatory process for its multibillion-dollar deal, Comcast has outlined several public interest conditions — one of which is a promise to launch at least two independently owned cable networks on its programming lineup once Comcast completes its full infrastructure upgrade to digital.

Industry executives said the pronouncement comes as independent networks struggle to secure significant distribution on Comcast-owned systems.

“Remember how independent networks have fared when they’ve called on Comcast in the past. … There has been an attitude of equity investment for carriage within Comcast so we’ll see what happens,” said Gary Lico, president and CEO of CableU, a cable-network research company. “I’m going to take it on good faith because the plain and simple of all of it is you have to do business with everyone. The proof will be in the putting.”

Hispanic-targeted indie network Sí TV is taking a wait-and-see attitude regarding the announcement. Network CEO Michael Schwimmer said the MSO’s track record with regard to launching independent networks is not stellar, particularly when compared to its distribution of its in-house owned-and-operated channels.

For example, while Sí TV is in front of 2.5 million Comcast digital subscribers, Schwimmer said that figure pales in comparison to the more than 20 million Comcast digital subscribers that TV One enjoys. TV One, targeted at African-American viewers, is co-owned by Comcast and Radio One. Schwimmer said both networks were launched at the same time and offer comparable affiliate fee deals, although he would not provide specifics.

“The devil will be in the details: What’s the packaging that such networks will receive, what’s the amount of distribution they’ll receive and, most importantly, what are the economics that they’ll receive,” he said. “Saying you’ll add two networks to the digital lineup really doesn’t mean anything unless those networks are provided terms of distribution which will allow that independent network to become a robust provider of content over time.”

James Ackerman, CEO of the Documentary Channel, is optimistic that Comcast’s proclamation could turn into first-time distribution for the four-year-old network. “The fact that they are making a stated commitment to launch independent channels, I think, is fantastic,” he added.

Networks that already have limited carriage on Comcast systems, like Africa Channel, are hopeful that the move will open up greater distribution opportunities.

“I find it to be entirely consistent with what we’ve been hearing at the Africa Channel in our direct dealings with Comcast throughout the past year,” said network executive vice president and general manager Bob Reid.

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