Charter Orders Up Nat Geo


The Fox Cable Networks Group and Charter Communications Inc. have been on the same page lately.

Charter and the programmer this week agreed on a wide-ranging deal that puts the National Geographic Channel in front of millions of households. The news follows last month's distribution pact for two regional Fox Sports Net channels, which also made the MSO the first operator to sign on for Fox Sports Digital Gold.

In a twist, the deal is the same whether the customers involved take analog or digital service.

Fox admits both deals were on the table at the same time, but executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Lindsay Gardner said the success of one did not depend on the other.

"We did do these deals in sequence," said Gardner. "We were talking about a lot of these issues at the same time and it was anyone's guess which deals would get done first." But making the other deals "really did clear, from both companies' perspectives, some pressing issues and put both companies in a frame of mind where we could make this deal," he added.

While some operators are paying 15 cents per subscriber, those that make a broad commitment — such as Charter — will receive $3 to $5 per subscriber in launch support.

Under terms of the deal released last week, Charter will launch the new channel to two-thirds of its customers over the next four years. The MSO now has 7 million subscribers, so the channel will likely be available in about 4 million charter homes.

Charter's decentralized approach affords local managers wide discretion over the channels their systems can offer. Fox has been told the network will be in roughly 1 million Charter homes by the end of April.

Nearly all of the berths are on expanded basic; analog distribution was not specified in the deal.

"Sometimes when you don't ask for something, that's when you get it," says Gardner. "We've been rewarded by just an extraordinary vote of confidence.

The deal boosts National Geographic's promised distribution to 32 million cable or satellite homes over the next five years. It is currently available in about 10 million households.

Nat Geo said it recently picked up commitments for nearly 1 million subscribers from Classic Communications; Millennium Digital Media, Caribbean Cable Co-Op, Qwest Communications International Inc. and Ameritech New Media, as well as a 35,000-customer commitment from James Cable.