Content

Music Pitches To Niches

9/22/2006 8:00 PM Eastern

Smooth jazz. Heavy metal. Urban gospel. For every musical taste, there’s a category — but not necessarily a linear or on-demand programming service. For many niche plays, fans can find only audio rather than video content. That has some multichannel operators viewing those niches as potential markets, albeit with their own challenges.

“I think there’s a substantial opportunity to take all of those Music Choice-type channels and make them more interactive and link them to on- demand videos,” said Comcast Corp. senior vice president of video services Page Thompson, referring to the operator’s package of digital-cable audio channels. “Those are things that we’re exploring.”

Some programmers have already stepped up with new channels. One example is two-year-old VOD service Havoc Television, with a rotation that’s heavy on independent-label music, ranging from punk rock and electronic music to underground hip-hop.

“MTV, Fuse and channels like that are focused on the most mainstream music,” said Havoc founder and CEO Ryan Kresser. “Havoc basically caters to the 30% of the market that’s independent-label music. [It’s] a growing part of the market and is the cool segment for younger kids, who are most likely to use VOD. It’s about giving them choice rather than having to take whatever MTV is feeding them.”

Havoc currently is available on five of the six largest cable operators — Time Warner Cable is the holdout — as well as Verizon Communications Inc.’s FiOS TV. In October, Havoc will launch a nightly four-hour block on DirecTV Inc.’s new youth-focused Channel 101.

BUILDING A FOLLOWING

Havoc has built a following not just among viewers, but more than 100 indie record labels, too. “Just about every label that’s taken the time to learn who we are has signed up, and none have cancelled,” said Matt Muir, vice president and head of programming. “After 2½ years of pounding the pavement trying to educate people about what Havoc is, now we’re fortunate enough to have a platform where people are seeking us out.”

MTV Networks acknowledges that there’s a market for more than just mainstream artists. “It’s certainly become more of a niched world in the past couple of years,” said Van Toffler, president of MTVN’s Music, Logo and Films group.

In response, the network has spent the past few years launching channels aimed at specific demographics and markets, such as mtvÜ for college students and the latest, MTV Tr3s (pronounced “Trés”), which targets U.S. Hispanic youth. “It’s already getting great buzz,” MTVN senior vice president of affiliate marketing Jessica Heacock said.

BETTER FOR BROADBAND?

In identifying underserved markets, one big question networks face is the best way to deliver that programming.

“I personally love alt country — Ryan Adams and The Jayhawks — but I’m not sure that’s a TV channel as much as it is a microsite and a subset of what Country Music Television offers.” Toffler said. “Some things we might launch just as broadband channels, as we did with Overdrive, VSpot and CMT Pure Country.”

Christian music highlights some of the challenges that networks face. “The problem is that Christian music is kind of a microcosm of society,” said John Roos, senior vice president of corporate communications and research at The Inspiration Networks. “In terms of having a single channel, the hard thing is how you satisfy all of these genres.”

That’s because “Christian music” is a catch-all term, that includes hip-hop, gospel, country and rock, to name a few.

“Over the past 20 years, there have been a number of attempts to have a single [Christian] music channel,” said Roos, who was executive vice president of one of them, Z Music Television, from 1991 to 1993.

Indeed, for operators and telco TV providers, one big issue is whether networks pushing niche formats have what it takes in terms of revenue and resources to run a channel that viewers will watch.

“I’ve taken a lot of pitches for music,” said Tricia Lynch, director of FiOS TV programming at Verizon. “It becomes a decision of whether the organization is really prepared to provide something on a consistent basis that’s refreshed regularly.”