NYC TV Week: Independent Networks Optimistic About Gaining Linear Traction

Execs from Pivot, Revolt TV, TheBlaze Believe Passionate Audiences Can Spur MPVD Growth

While acknowledging that bandwidth is tight, executives at a trio of independent start-ups believe that the passion of their audiences will earn their networks more carriage – linear and otherwise – down the road.

On NYC TV Week’s "New Start-Ups" panel, led by moderator and Multichannel News programming editor R.Thomas Umstead on Oct. 29, TheBlaze CEO Christopher Balfe, Revolt Media CEO Keith Clinkscales and Pivot president Evan Shapiro made the cases for their services in a crowded programming landscape, where space has been allotted to networks owned by media conglomerates.

“Distribution is the biggest challenge to any independent voice because large integrated media companies take all the bandwidth. There are some good channels, but the others eat up the bandwidth and make it difficult for the rest of us,” said Shapiro, whose millennial-targeted service launched Aug. 1 with 40 million subscribers and now counts 43 million.

“Change is going to come –- it’s clear from what we’ve seen in Washington over the last few months -- and millennials are going to clean up the mess left by many older people,” said Shapiro. He noted that Pivot aspires to appeal to the 18-to-34 set through an array of programming – comedy, reality, news, drama, game shows – “that is entertaining and thought-provoking.”

Balfe says TheBlaze, the conservative-skewing service from Glenn Beck, is well-positioned with a large dedicated following. “There are 94 million conservatives – the largest identified ideology,” he said, noting that in addition to carriage on Dish Network and Cablevision’s Optimum TV, the network has deals with Blue Ridge Communications among 34 smaller providers. also attracts 20 million unique visitors and TheBlaze counts some 400 radio affiliates and has a large social media presence.

Mentioning the strength of Fox News Channel, where Beck used to work and whose audience often beats that of CNN, Headline News, MSNBC and Al Jazeera America combined, Balfe said the biggest challenge is proving that TheBlaze programming will translate in the linear TV world.

“As we launched as an over-the-top service with 300,000 paying customers – we have more people paying to watch our programming than a lot of networks have watching for free,” he said. That speaks to the popularity of the content. "For us, the challenge tends to be, the gatekeepers of the distribution community often times live in New York and L.A., as I live in New York, and don’t necessarily understand the power of the audience, the size of the audience, the loyalty and passion they have to watch our programming. Often times it takes them going on a trip through the country to realize how big and powerful and loyal this audience is and what the demand is for the programming."

Clinkscales said the music network founded by Sean “Diddy” Combs had a strong digital presence before it launched Oct. 21 on Comcast and Time Warner Cable. “This is not just videos, but news and programming that takes fans behind the music,” said Clinkscales. “Millennials see music as freedom and truth and that music and artists are sources of  social currency.”

He said that Revolt TV needs to its broaden audience, while continuing to improving its content. “It’s a dance. We have to keep growing and face the challenge of distribution. The early response has been good. We’re happy with our existing partners, but we have to find new friends,” he said.

Shapiro said MPVDs were at “a pivot point” -- his third plug and pun -- since distributors are now calibrating success as whey they sustain only small subscriber losses, instead of growing their rolls on a monthly or quarterly basis.  

He said that among 18-to-34-year-olds broadband was more important that anything in the home, including phones and pay TV. He said MPVDs could recalculate their business and grow it by embracing models like the PivotTV App, which replicates its linear lineup, and is available to authenticated broadband subscribers for a monthly fee. “Netflix, Hulu and iTunes have figured it out,” he said. “Others are using MPVDs’ pipe to eat the MVPDs’ lunch. They can grow their businesses, not just hold off the declines” with Pivot's app play.

The executives also said that their success with Madison Avenue underscores the value of passionate audiences -- even if the linear scale isn’t quite there yet.

“The ad challenge is that we’re not must-buy” by size, said Clinkscales. “But sponsors bring the fire, they know what our audiences feel, and they believe in our plan. Anheuser-Busch, Coke and Pepsi live in that space”

Balfe said that talk radio has always been a results-driven medium, where the advertising business is concerned. “Glenn live reads commercial endorsements. The others do live reads,” he said. “We’re used to producing results and we’re seeing renewals. We’ll get more with further distribution.”