Three years after the launch of its first international cable network, the Washington, D.C.-based National Geographic Channel has come home.
Network executives planned to flip the switch yesterday (Jan. 7), preceding a live launch program featuring presentations by renowned explorers, celebrity appearances and a taped address from President Clinton.
The launch finally sets into motion a long-anticipated battle between NGC and Discovery Communications Inc. The start-up's biggest challenges remain securing cable distribution and building its original-programming library.
Though NGC was set to launch with 10 million subscribers, 7.1 million of those households come from direct-broadcast satellite provider DirecTV Inc. Only a few operators have agreed to carry the channel.
NGC touts deals with AT & T Broadband, Charter Communications Inc., Adelphia Communications Corp. and the National Cable Television Cooperative. But Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications Inc., Comcast Corp., Cablevision Systems Corp. and other operators haven't signed on yet.
NGC will charge cable operators monthly subscriber fees of about 15 cents per subscriber and offer cash payments ranging from $3 to $5 per subscriber, said Lindsay Gardner, executive vice president of Fox Cable Networks, which owns 75 percent of the domestic channel. The launch-support payments are tied to how quickly MSOs roll out the channel: The offer is $5 per subscriber this year, $4 next year and $3 in 2003.
"We won't sell the product short. We believe in the brand, we believe in the channel," Gardner said when asked if he'd be willing to ease up on the rate card in order to get more operators on board.
NGC's most recent carriage deal, reached last month, was with NCTC. Although it's too early to gauge the programming, NCTC senior vice president of programming Frank Hughes said the network's brand itself will carry a lot of weight.
"You don't have to explain to people what National Geographic is going to be," Hughes said. "It should be a fairly easy sell."
Network executives drew up a plan through which the channel would turn a profit in four years, NGC president Laureen Ong said. "We certainly hope that we could beat that number," she added.
One early criticism of NGC's United Kingdom network was that although the programming was strong, too many shows were repeated.
The schedule for the domestic channel is built around several core programs, which are repeated throughout the day. The one-hour, live studio show National Geographic Today
premieres each night at 7 p.m., and is repeated at 1 a.m., 9 a.m., 12 p.m. and 7 p.m. Living Wild, another one-hour program, gets four runs each day.
"While we have extended our brand by putting some of the programs that we feature in our primetime in daytime, that was a strategic decision to do that, as opposed to going to lower-cost acquisitions and lower-quality" programming, vice president of programming Christine Cuppens said.
About 60 percent of the schedule is original, including many shows from the National Geographic Television library that have previously aired on U.S. and international networks, said executive vice president of programming, production and news Andrew Wilk.
The network shot its Treasure Seekers
program in high-definition format and also ordered some HD specials, Wilk said. The network may begin offering a full high-definition feed within two years, he added.
In the metered markets in which both NGC and Discovery Channel compete, Discovery has a significant ratings edge, according to third-quarter primetime ratings provided by Discovery.
Discovery pulled a 0.22 BARB rating in the U.K. during the third quarter, blowing away a 0.06 rating from NGC. In Taiwan, Discovery posted a 0.22 AC Nielsen rating, edging out NGC's 0.20. Discovery pulled a 0.20 TAM rating in India, doubling NGC's 0.10.