Americas Voice May Adopt a Native Accent

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The company that plans to acquire bankrupt cable channel America's Voice wants to turn it into the first channel with a focus on Native-American programming and issues.

And if Irving Brand, who's set to become co-chairman of the network, gets his way, America's Voice-which has attracted only 9 million full-time subscribers since it launched in 1997-will be the next Home Box Office.

"[America's Voice is] going to be one of the majors when I get through with it. I'm not kidding you," said Brand, chairman of Carleigh Films Inc.

Carleigh Films and Wild Frontier Network Inc. recently signed an agreement in principle to acquire America's Voice, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy-law protection from creditors in December.

The deal to acquire the Washington, D.C.-based political-talk network is expected to close in September.

Brand and Lynn C. Gray Carbajal, chairman of Wild Frontier, have some grand plans for America's Voice, which Carbajal said may eventually be renamed Wild Frontier Network.

Carbajal said the plan is to use vintage Western programming, including "cowboy-and-Indian" movies, to attract viewers to the network.

Wrapped around some of the Westerns will be documentaries and public-affairs programming, which Carbajal plans to use to "give a voice" to Native Americans and to dispel many of the myths about Native Americans that are portrayed in Western films.

"We really do want to juxtapose that contrast. We really do want to have a comfort level with people who were weaned on that kind of material sitting side-by side with some contemporary public-affairs and educational material so that we can knock those stereotypes right out of the box," she said.

Don't expect the format change to occur overnight. Carbajal, who will also be co-chairman, said the network will begin running some Native-American programming this fall during late-night, and it will gradually increase the amount of Native-American programming on the schedule.

Although there will be Native-American programming in primetime, she said, the majority of content will never be Native-American programming.

"We intend to start with a small percentage of core programming that is Native, and we intend to surround it with lots of programming that is not intimidating to the viewers," said Carbajal, who is also CEO of nonprofit organization Native American Television Inc.

Carbajal and Brand have other ideas for the company, including digitizing the network's analog feed into three or four channels and leasing those channels to other start-up networks.

But it's still not clear how many subscribers they will have after the deal closes. America's Voice executives said the network counts 15 million subscribers, including 9 million full-time cable and satellite homes. The remaining subscribers come from over-the-air distribution and part-time carriage.

At least one of the network's distributors, PrimeStar by DirecTV, plans to drop America's Voice. DirecTV Inc., which acquired PrimeStar Inc. last year, plans to shut down the medium-power DBS service by the end of the year. There are only 435,000 PrimeStar subscribers remaining.

"We will not carry them over to the high-power DirecTV service," said spokesman Robert Mercer.

The network had an agreement with AT & T Broadband's Headend in the Sky platform, but it was dropped in June for not making payments, current America's Voice chairman Robert Sutton said. The network owes HITS $170,149, an AT & T Broadband spokeswoman said.

But Brand, who said he plans to stick with the company for the long term, is confident that the network will be huge success.

"I'm not going to sell this one. This is a beaut. I'm going to make this as big as HBO, because we produce pictures and do everything as HBO does," Brand said.

Brand offered details about his background. He said he has purchased other companies through bankruptcy proceedings in the past, including First National Entertainment Corp. and Marquis Pictures, which he later sold.

The network will have a library that's worth $24 million, Brand said, but he and Carbajal declined to name a single title.

Carleigh president Richard Shaheen did name some of the stars featured in the library, including Roy Rogers, Sophia Loren, Kirk Douglas, James Cagney, Charles Bronson, Elizabeth Taylor, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart.

Carbajal said her company has more than one-dozen executives who are focused mostly on programming, sales and marketing. The only member on the team she would name is senior vice president of marketing and sales Robert Syers, who Carbajal said is a former A & E Television Networks executive.

The new owners plan to continue the network's concentration on live political talk shows, which allow viewers to interact with hosts and policymakers through call-in shows and through the Internet. Current commentators include Robert Novak, Mary Matalin, Armstrong Williams, Casper Weinberger and Susan Molinari.

Noting, "We have our Robert Novaks," Carbajal said some of the new programming will feature Native-American talent hosting public-affairs shows about issues affecting Native Americans.

She said the goal isn't so much to effect political change than to gain exposure for Native Americans through public-affairs programming.

"We're human beings with different political points of view, different perspectives, but all of the same kinds of needs. The programming will be in the public-affairs space so that there's a positive interaction, and that we have a presence in a contemporary context, rather than historical-the old hackneyed, beat-up historical context," Carbajal said.

After America's Voice filed for bankruptcy, the network put much of its daytime lineup into repeats. It also sold its 10 a.m. to noon block to 5th Avenue Channel Corp. through a deal it struck with the company in March.

That programmer has been running its new Net Financial News show in that block. But Brand said the network will terminate that deal, adding, "We think we're going to chase them out."

Sutton declined last week to discuss Brand's and Carbajal's plan to add Native-American programming to the network, saying they had not discussed their plans with him.

"We were supposed to have a meeting this week to discuss all of it, and they, for whatever reason, weren't able to come in. But we will sit down and have a programming meeting sometime next week," Sutton said last Thursday.

Brand said the meeting was delayed because his team needed more time to conduct due diligence on America's Voice.

Right-wing activist Paul Weyrich founded America's Voice in 1997, launching it as National Empowerment Television. Weyrich later left the network, but his company, the Free Congress Foundation, remains a minority shareholder.

Free Congress is also the guarantor on a satellite-transponder lease America's Voice has with GE American Communications Inc. (GE Americom).

Sutton said America's Voice was forced into bankruptcy after Free Congress wrote GE Americom in December, warning that "they did not think America's Voice would survive."

"We wanted GE Americom to force America's Voice to pay rent for the satellite," Judith Sturtz Karp, an attorney representing America's Voice at law firm Kirkpatrick and Lockhart, said last week.

America's Voice stopped making monthly payments of $150,000 last fall, she said. With the lease running through October 2001, Free Congress did not want to be left with a $3 million liability, Karp added.

"We felt like they had an obligation to mitigate their damages," she said.

America's Voice also leases space for its headquarters from Free Congress, but it stopped making rent payments last fall, Karp said.

The network's monthly lease payments were reduced to $10,000 through the Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding, she said. Free Congress would be open to continuing to lease the space to the new owners, Karp said, adding, "We just want a paying tenant."

Brand said he intends to keep the network at its current location initially, but he may eventually relocate it to south Florida, where Carleigh is based. Shaheen said Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Boca Raton are possibilities.