Fox Movie Channel Trumpets Originals, Lineage

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Since its launch in 1994 as FXM: Movies from Fox, Fox Movie Channel has followed two primary operating orders — program an all-film service exclusively from titles produced by the studio that bears its name, and build up circulation.

After nearly eight years, the commercial-free service — which adopted its current moniker in March 2000 — has accumulated a catalog of 1,500 features from 20th Century-Fox, and now counts some 19 million households. When it comes to consumer awareness, though, Fox Movie Channel's recognition remains well below those of American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies, its vintage-film network competitors.

But lately — like the stirring fanfare with which Fox opens every film under its banner — the service has started to trumpet both itself, and the new direction it's taken to build its share of all-film buzz. That new course is forged around brand identity and forays into original programming.

Within six months, the channel — which screens up to 400 films per month — will introduce its first ongoing efforts in first-run production, said senior vice president and general manager Mark De Vitre. He's intent on following the behind-the-scenes/unique subject approach pursued by AMC in the popular Backstory
and its documentary specials, or of TCM's
Private Screenings
and documentaries.

PAINFUL IRONY

Most Backstory
episodes are not only about Fox films, but they're produced by Foxstar Productions — a separate unit within 20th Century-Fox Television. That irony is not lost on De Vitre.

"Does it pain me to see a Backstory
episode about a Fox movie on AMC? Of course it does," he said. "Both our sub base and the library have just grown to a level where we can shift the focus to original development.

"Foxstar is a fabulous producer with a track record on several cable networks. We're in discussion with them. I expect they'll be involved in the originals we'll do."

Until those shows are created, FMC plans to be much more public about its studio-based heritage — and to explore it to a greater extent. The channel's first major promotion campaign, replete with cross-channel avails and an event at the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills, Calif., broke in February.

It backed Hour of Stars, a set of 14 segments from one of Fox's earliest TV initiatives, The 20th Century-Fox Hour. Kicking off on March 2, the 1955-57 series of mostly Fox movie adaptations earned three Emmy nominations, but the shows had not been seen nationally since their original run.

On FMC, the episodes — which run in pristine shape, thanks to digital renovations of the picture and sound— are paired with the Fox movies from which they were adapted. They also include new introductions from Robert Wagner. Additional episodes are scheduled to air on the channel through 2004.

FILIAL FOX FARE

The network will also link its schedule more tightly to current Fox releases, so viewers can "get a piece of both old and new Hollywood," DeVitre said.

For instance, because Moulin Rouge
was a major Oscar contender, many of FMC's interstitial breaks last month were in that mode — including key Moulin Rouge
scenes, backstage trivia, music videos and celebrity congratulations on the film's Academy Award nomination.

When Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones
arrives in May, Fox Movie will feature a sci-fi film marathon and all manner of Star Wars
material.

Whether the connection relates to an old or new Fox film, the strategy is the same — give Fox Movie Channel viewers a flavor of the times.

"If we have How Green Was My Valley, we bring along a Fox Movietone News episode from the year of the film's release or a travelogue about the film's setting," said DeVitre. "You use complementary material in such a way that subs see what happened during the era of the film, or they're getting a duplication of the movie theater experience at the time."

Commercials — or more pointedly, a lack thereof — is one area that the service hasn't played up, even when AMC introduced commercial breaks within its films last fall.

"All along, we've been consistent in our marketing to note the commercial-free nature," De Vitre said. "But right after AMC made the change, we saw a significant increase in viewer calls and e-mails about their decision.

"For them, it was the fiber that broke that camel's back, and they thanked us for our policy."

REACHING BREAK-EVEN

All told, De Vitre and his 10-member staff have a $20 million annual budget. He said the channel is expected to break even when its current fiscal year ends on June 30.

Cable systems currently make up 40 percent of FMC's household universe, with direct-broadcast satellite comprising the rest. Sixty percent of the cable affiliates carry the channel on analog, but most of its more recent affiliate agreements call for expanded basic or digital placement, De Vitre said.

"We carry FMC. We give the channel significant carriage on expanded basic and digital tiers," Charter Communications Inc. programming director Paula Mogely said through a spokeswoman.

But many MSOs have yet to find room for the service.

"We don't have any distribution of FMC on our systems, and while like anything else, the exclusive Fox film content may have a niche audience, we can only carry so many services," said Susquehanna Communications Inc. vice president of programming Dan Templin. "It's not real high on our priority list for a look right now."

For the near future, Nielsen Media Research won't rate FMC, though De Vitre said that would be revisited once the channel reaches 25 million homes. The network is also researching video-on-demand and subscription VOD plans.

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