First, the buzz at the National Show was about the roughly two dozen start-up networks all expecting to launch: a collective pipe dream, according to skeptics.
But when former Vice President Al Gore hit the convention floor, the talk shifted to how he imagines he’ll be able to get traction for tiny Newsworld International.
With his surprise visit and announcement last week, former cable foe Gore laid to rest months of speculation that he intends to turn NWI into a liberal political network. Instead, Gore and his partner — entrepreneur and Democratic fundraiser Joel Hyatt — presented sketchy plans about relaunching global-news network NWI into a channel for 18-to-34-year-olds, with programming that would include a youthful slant on current events, information and culture.
While most cable-industry veterans would concede that independent networks face an uphill fight to secure distribution without the leverage and clout of a media giant behind them, Gore tried to position NWI’s standalone status as an advantage.
“Having independent voices — particularly in news and information, current affairs, real-life stories about our world — is a very important value to safeguard,” Gore said at last Tuesday’s press conference at the show, where he unveiled his long-awaited purchase of NWI from Vivendi Universal Entertainment.
The purchase price wasn’t disclosed, although prior published reports had put it at a ballpark figure of $70 million.
Gore and his newly formed company, INdTV Holdings LLC, will try to ramp up carriage for the 17 million-subscriber NWI, which will be renamed.
But it remains to be seen if Gore will even retain NWI’s current distribution with Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable, although he claims it’s not a problem.
And at least one cable operator privately suggested the industry hasn’t forgotten Gore’s part in cable regulation in the early 1990s, and his past cable bashing.
Even without that unique mark against him, Gore faces the typical — and tough — hurdles in front of any network trying to jumpstart distribution, according to a second MSO official.
“You look at where Newsworld is today, it tells me the cable industry is not interested in it as it stands,” the operator said. “The challenge he’s got is there are probably 30 other new networks out there trying to get distribution in what is becoming, once again, increasingly limited bandwidth availability.
“He’s going to have trouble, frankly. There are some areas where he may have relationships and something to offer, and I think he’ll get distribution there. But to get broad MSO-wide distribution, 80 million households, I don’t think he realizes the challenge he’s going to have. Nor do I think he’s equipped with the resources that it may take to get there.”
For the time being, NWI will continue to air news and information programming from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Gore said. Both he and Hyatt stressed that their young target demographic will help create NWI’s content.
NWI is profitable now, and INdTV has raised enough money to not only buy the network but to create new programming for it, according to Hyatt.
“We are going to be investing in the development of new programming and marketing,” Hyatt said. “It’s going to take a lot of investment to execute our strategic plan.”
GORE: 'WE’RE ROOKIES’
Gore was undaunted by the obstacles. “We understand that we’re rookies,” he said. “We understand how hard this is.”
NWI is currently carried on DirecTV Inc.’s widely distributed “Total Choice” tier.
Time Warner also offers NWI on its digital tier with about 4. 5 million subscribers, including New York City.
Gore has touched based with officials at DirecTV about what he has in store for NWI, according to industry sources.
“We’re certainly looking forward to working with Mr. Gore and seeing more of his plans for the channel,” DirecTV spokesman Bob Marsocci said. “We will obviously continue to carry the channel.”
About 700,000 Comcast subscribers have NWI, including those in the San Francisco Bay area.
“It’s a deal that was inherited with AT&T Broadband,” Comcast spokesman Tim Fitzpatrick said.
In the past, when networks change their format to a genre that’s different from the one laid out in their carriage agreement, distributors have raised a ruckus — and sometimes dropped the network.
In fact, Time Warner and Rainbow Media Holdings Corp. are now in litigation over AMC’s change in programming strategy.
In an interview with Multichannel News, Gore was asked if he had discussed the NWI format change with its current distributors.
“We already have agreements with the MSOs that currently carry NWI for the changes we intend to do,” Gore said.
Officials at Comcast and Time Warner Cable were far more tentative.
“As far as this network goes, it’s simply too early to say what the future is going to look like,” Fitzpatrick said.
Time Warner MSO spokesman Mark Harrad said, “We do carry NWI, but it’s a little early for us to be able to confirm carriage for the new Gore channel.”
Another cable-operator source said distributors will check their NWI carriage agreements to see how well-defined the network is in those contracts.
“If they [Gore] deviate drastically from that, obviously people will have a right to say, 'Hey, this isn’t what I signed up for,’ ” the source said. “They’d have the right to take it off, pure and simple.”
Gore will serve as chairman of INdTV, while Hyatt will be CEO. Mark Goldman, a veteran of News Corp. and its Sky Latin America Partners, will serve as chief operating officer.