Backtalk: Dolans Hyperlocalism


With its usual fanfare, Cablevision Systems Corp. has nowlaunched three new and very localized MSG Metro Channels to its entire 2.5million-subscriber base in the Greater New York area's "mother of all clusters."

The three channels -- MSG Metro Guide, the"where-to-go, what-to-do" service; the self-explanatory MSG Traffic and Weatheroffering; and the MSG Metro Learning channel -- are the dream children of Cablevisionchieftain Chuck Dolan.

Like most of what Dolan invents, the MSG Metro Channelconcept is uniquely creative and, on balance, pretty well executed, even in its fledglingdays.

However, Rainbow Media Holdings Inc., Cablevision'sprogramming arm, is still in negotiations with other MSOs serving the DMA --Time WarnerCable, Comcast Corp. and MediaOne -- about carrying the channels.

To date, none has taken the bait, but Rainbow hopes tobring them on board by year's end, according to Laurie Giddins, senior vice president andthe executive in charge of MSG Metro Channels.

Rainbow has a unique product to sell -- "athree-channel brand," as Giddins refers to it -- if not a tough one.

After all, Rainbow is asking other cable operators in thearea to carry the three 24-hour channels on sequential slots, to the tune of a reported $1per subscriber for the package.

Giddins would not comment on subscriber fees, but she saysher company, in its negotiations with other operators, is being most flexible in order toget carriage -- flexible to the point where other cable systems might not have to take allthree channels if the support was strong enough.

Still, some might say that this is quite a land grab inthis ongoing era of tight channel capacity, where many broad-based national services arestruggling for carriage of any type.

But Dolan has done well with local content, or his brand of"neighborhood" content, judging from the host of local business that the News 12Westchester channel in my area is attracting.

For Dolan's own cable systems, the MSG Metro Channelconcept is a very logical extension of what he's already done. Dolan pioneered the conceptof local cable news, first in Long Island with News 12, and later retrofitting thatconcept in four other local markets, including mine (Westchester County, N.Y.).

Rainbow is pumping an estimated $100 million to developlocal content for the three new local channels, but it seems to be spending the moneywisely.

For example, MSG Traffic and Weather repurposes elementsfrom News 12 -- in my market, at least -- using that channel's graphics and the voice-overof its weatherman, keeping production costs low.

The MSG Metro Channels also serve as a great platform forCablevision to promote its other services, which, by the way, all three have unabashedlydone with nonstop frequency during these early debut months, when local ad sales have yetto kick in.

In fact, that's one of the problems that I have with thestaccato-paced-MSG Traffic and Weather channel. The channel runs one minute and 50 secondsof traffic, followed by a 10-second promo. Weather runs one minute and 50 seconds, alsowith a 10-second promotion spot. And that pattern just keeps repeating itself.

The barrage of 10-second spots on MSG Traffic and Weathercan drive you to drink. What I saw over and over and over in these early launch days werenonstop spots for the entire MSG Metro Channel package and for Nobody Beats the Wiz.

Promo spots also flood the MSG Metro Guide channel, whereyou'll see more spots for the other new local services and for The Independent FilmChannel, MuchMusic USA and Madison Square Garden, all Dolan properties.

Presumably, Time Warner Cable and other operators in theGreater New York area would be allowed to promote their own networks and services if theysign up, given that they will have local avails to sell, as well.

Rainbow executives describe the channels, with their 27different regional feeds, as "hyperlocal" and a "hybrid of the Internet andtelevision."

The Web feeling really does come across, particularly onthe MSG Metro Guide channel. There's a lot of multiple-screen action, and there's always ashort feature or report about something going on in the tristate area, with a crawl ofevents running underneath, specifically targeted to viewers in a particular market --hence, the 27 different feeds.

So in many respects, Dolan and his people have reallycreated "the next generation of local-TV programming, and a brand-new model for localTV," as Rainbow executives have promised.

Some may think that three new local channels, plus News 12,is overkill. Not me. What better hedge against DBS? Remember, the channels are distributedvia fiber. And beyond that, they put the cable system in closer contact with the localcommunity that it serves and with its constituents and customers.