Odyssey Reincarnates Itself

11/22/1998 7:00 PM Eastern

Some cable operators and ad-agency executives last week
were questioning Odyssey Channel's plans to relaunch as a broad-based family-entertainment
network in April, saying last week that cable has a glut of those programming services

The new ownership of Odyssey — which now includes
Hallmark Entertainment and The Jim Henson Co. as 45 percent owners — unveiled its
pumped-up programming strategy last Monday, as well as naming Margaret Loesch president
and CEO of the service.

Odyssey plans to spend $200 million for programming over
the next three years, mainly on original and library product from Hallmark and Henson
— fare such as Gulliver's Travels, The Odyssey, Merlin, Moby
and The Muppet Show.

Loesch, the former vice chairman of Fox Kids Worldwide,
said Odyssey, which has occupied the faith-and-values niche, will also air 40 hours per
week of religious and spiritual programming under the terms of its new partnership

But overall, the revamped Odyssey will be a broad-based
channel targeted toward adults 18 to 55, according to Loesch. While she said it will
"be appealing to today's family," she declined to use the term "family
programming" to describe it. Instead, she said, its spirit will be "quality,
classy and fun," with some kids' appeal via programming from the Henson library.

It remains to be seen whether cable operators will consider
30 million-subscriber Odyssey's repositioning to be so different from its old format that
they find it to be in conflict with current affiliation agreements.

"My concern is that by moving away from their core of
religious programming, they may be moving away from the reason why some operators decided
to pick them up in the first place," said John Murawski, director of product
development for The Lenfest Group.

Murawski added, "Their strength was
multidenominational religious programming, but they're moving toward what the old Family
Channel used to be."

Jerry McKenna, vice president of strategic marketing for
Cable One, had a similar take on Odyssey's repositioning, which will put it in an arena
that includes the revamped Fox Family Channel, Disney Channel and Pax TV.

"In our markets, there is a desire for religious
programming," McKenna said. "But [Odyssey is] entering a competitive field
[family-oriented networks], and I think that they'll have a bumpy road."

Cable One is in the process of standardizing its program
lineups across all of its systems, signing carriage deals so far with 15 of the 35
networks that it intends to carry throughout its 650,000 homes.

Five additional slots will be left at the discretion of the
local systems. McKenna said his systems could use those slots to pick religious- and
ethnic-programming services on a local basis, so they will have to decide if Odyssey fits
the bill for them.

But operators weren't the only ones raising eyebrows about
Odyssey's game plan. At least one Madison Avenue executive did, too.

"It sounds like another general-entertainment cable
network," said Steve Grubbs, executive vice president and director of national TV
buying at BBDO Worldwide. "At some point, you have to wonder how many
general-entertainment networks the marketplace can support."

Odyssey officials maintained that cable-operator reaction
to the spring relaunch has been good, so far.

"We really haven't canvassed all of the MSOs, but the
initial reaction has been positive," Loesch said. "We have to be sure that
people understand what we're trying to do. We're not abandoning the basic tenets [of
Odyssey]: We're doing something bigger and better."

Other industry observers, including one cable operator,
predicted that Hallmark's and Henson's high-quality programming will attract viewers, with
their 4,000-hour combined library and original fare.

Odyssey plans to debut three to five original series per
year from Hallmark and Henson, and it also aims to do 12 original movies annually, as well
as additional specials.

"It sounds like some proven software," said Tim
Spengler, senior vice president and general manager of national TV for Western
International Media Corp. "[Hallmark and Henson] are programming kings. They bring
the right credentials to the table, and I wouldn't be surprised if they attract

Lynne Buening, vice president of programming for Falcon
Cable TV Corp., had similar faith in Odyssey's new partners.

"The backbone of Henson and Hallmark will make it
work, " she said. "They've got the legs and the muscle to do it."

And if anyone can build a brand for Odyssey, it's Loesch,
who most recently was president of the Henson Television Group, observers said. She
accomplished that goal for Fox Kids, according to Bill Carroll, director of programming
for Katz Television.

"She really established Fox Kids," he said.
"Most point to her as the architect of their success."

Hallmark and Henson last week said they had finalized their
deal to acquire a shared 45 percent stake in Odyssey for $100 million. Under the
restructuring, Odyssey's veteran owners — Liberty Media Corp. and the National
Interfaith Cable Coalition Inc. — will get 32.5 percent and 22.5 percent shares,
respectively, in the network.

Odyssey will be different from the revamped Fox Family and
Pax TV, according to Loesch.

"It won't be a children's channel," she said.
"It won't be a channel specifically targeted to compete against Disney [Channel] or
Fox Family. It is a broad-based channel positioned for adults, and a channel that kids can
watch with adults … It will be reminiscent of the programming when I was a little

Loesch said Pax TV is skewing toward an older audience than
what Odyssey is looking for, and she claimed that Odyssey will do a better job blending
its religious shows with the rest of its schedule — which, she maintained, Fox Family
has failed to do with The 700 Club.

Jeff Sagansky, president of Paxson Communications Corp.,
said there's room for more than one family-style channel, but he thinks that his Pax TV
service has an edge.

"We have a huge head start over Odyssey," he
said. "It's mostly going to be a library channel. We're going to have lots of
original programming. And we have a lot more visibility."

Want to read more stories like this?
Get our Free Newsletter Here!