Cable Operators

New Reality For Old Nets

10/18/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

News Corp.’s decision to rebrand its Fox Reality Channel into a spinoff of National Geographic Channel continues a recent wave of media companies opting to rebrand smaller basic-cable services in their portfolios, maximizing the value of that TV shelf space.

The new service, Nat Geo Wild, will assume Fox Reality Channel’s 47.9 million subscriber base, although Fox will most likely have to renegotiate Fox Reality’s existing distribution deals to accommodate the new service. (See related story in Content, page 12.)

Nat Geo Wild will join several other cable networks that have been or will be rebranded over the next year. Scripps Networks recently announced it will convert its 55 million-subscriber Fine Living Network into the Cooking Channel next spring, as a companion to its Food Network. BET Networks late last month rebranded its 27 million-subscriber music/reality series-based BET J service as Centric, an entertainment service targeting 25-to-54-year-old African-American adults.

In February, Disney Channel took its animated Toon Disney network and retooled it into Disney XD to reach young male kids and tweens.

Discovery Communications, under the watch of CEO David Zaslav, has morphed several of its emerging digital networks over the past two years, including the news/documentary service Discovery Times into crime and forensics channel ID: Investigation Discovery. Next year, it will relaunch Discovery Health as the Oprah Winfrey-produced OWN channel and Discovery Kids as a joint venture with toymaker Hasbro.

Small cable channels continue to be sold for their bandwidth (or, indeed, shut down, as Lime TV was in 2007 after new owners rebranded what had been Wisdom Television). Vivendi, for example, sold 17 million-subscriber Newsworld International to Joel Hyatt and Al Gore in 2004; the pair then remade it into Current TV.

The owners of AmericanLife Network (12 million subscribers) sold it this year to ComStar Media Fund, which is giving it a more conservative, Christian bent. Gospel Music Channel bought 16 million viewers from the owners of the defunct African-American targeted Black Family Channel.

But with channel bandwidth at a premium as distributors look to offer other services like phone, high-speed Internet and on-demand programming to subscribers, networks (especially smaller outlets within bigger network groups) are looking to hold on to their bandwidth and retool struggling services.

“The reason you see companies like Discovery and others rebranding and relaunching channels is that a network like Fox Reality is an asset, so the responsible thing to do is to try to hang on to those subscribers and come up with something that you think would work better,” said Lindsay Gardner, partner with MediaTech Capital Partners.

Gardner, a former Fox Cable Networks affiliate-sales chief, said it’s less expensive to rebrand an FLN or Fox Reality than to start a new service from scratch and build it 30 million or 40 million subscribers. Such a fresh start could cost between $40 million and $120 million.

As for Nat Geo Wild, the network — a joint venture between Fox Cable Networks and National Geographic Ventures — will place a heavy emphasis on sister service Nat Geo’s popular nature and wild animal programming, according to network officials.

The animal-centric service is already in about 50 countries around the world, with launches in France, Germany, Australia and Latin America in the past year.

National Geographic Channel general manager Steve Schiffman will oversee the new channel, which will be made available in both standard- and high-definition formats.

Nat Geo Wild, currently run by Geoff Daniels, senior vice president of development and production for National Geographic Channels International, is the first network to be imported from overseas to the U.S. market.

Schiffman said he’s confident that the network will be able to secure Fox Reality’s 47 million subscribers, adding that Nat Geo Wild was “in the planning stages” to launch as a standalone service.

“We’re confident operators will embrace it,” he said. “It’s family-friendly, advertiser-friendly, it’s operator-friendly, it’s offered in HD and we’ll have high-speed content for operators and in some cases offer exclusive clips of wildlife content for operators’ Web portals.”

Media companies with multiple cable networks have lately been taking some of the smaller channels and tweaking their formats, to maximize their potential. Some examples.

Nat Geo Wild is a joint venture of News Corp. and National Geographic Ventures; Centric is jointly owned by MTV Networks and BET Networks.
SOURCE: Multichannel News research
News Corp. Fox Reality Nat Geo Wild* March 2010
Scripps Networks Fine Living Cooking Channel Summer 2010
Viacom BET J Centric Sept. 2009
Walt Disney Toon Disney Disney XD Feb. 2009
Discovery Discovery Kids Hasbro Joint Venture Fall 2010