When America's Voice launched in January, it did not
mark the birth of a new network, nor did it symbol the overnight transformation of an
This was actually just the largest step in a gradual
tinkering, sliding and shifting of an unusual network -- a process that still continues as
America's Voice tries to make itself heard in the crowded cable landscape.
The network has changed its name -- from NET: The Political
News Talk Television Network -- altered its financing, beefed up its programming lineup
and bulked up its staff, all while trying to create a new image for itself.
The original incarnation, NET, had more than its share of
drawbacks. The most obvious problem, of course, was the name. NET meant nothing to
viewers, whereas America's Voice clearly connotes a network trying to give the
ordinary citizen a place to speak out.
"People didn't know what NET was, so it was
better just to go and get another name," said chairman and CEO Robert Sutton.
But it wasn't just the moniker that gave the network a
bad name. NET was founded by archconservative Paul Weyrich, a man far enough to the right
to make Newt Gingrich look moderate. NET, in fact, was a nonprofit network tied to the
conservative Free Congress group.
Ultimately, Sutton said, the reasons for starting over were
as much financial as ideological. The nonprofit approach was holding the network back.
"In order to keep the network going we needed investors," he said.
Still, in 1996, when the network was trying to play down
its reputation as a mouthpiece for the far right and promote itself simply as a
free-speech advocate, Weyrich -- then chairman and chief operating officer -- let loose
with a statement that undermined the marketing efforts.
Weyrich claimed that he would fire anyone who used
politically correct language at the network: instead of the term African-Americans,
employees could say either blacks or Negroes; Native Americans was out, while redskins was
acceptable; and "good morals" was the preferred phrase in place of homophobia.
Additionally, Weyrich said, there was no such thing as sexism.
These days, Sutton is quick to distance himself and the
network from such an incendiary attitude, saying, "That must have just been Paul
talking, we would never allow that." And while Weyrich still sits on the
network's board and hosts "Direct Line," an interview and call-in show five
nights a week, Sutton said "he has nothing to do with editorial decisions."
The network had to break free of the Free Congress to
"mold its own identity," Sutton said, acknowledging that NET had acquired a
"negative connotation" and that cable operators had "some questions"
about the relationship to Free Congress.
America's Voice is "much more balanced,"
than NET was, said Sutton, and "the response from cable operators has been
The network is making an effort to move beyond the older,
male viewers who are traditionally attracted to these programs: 81 percent of the
network's viewers are over 35 and 59 percent are over 50, while 61 percent are male.
So the network has Genevieve Wood, a young woman, host America's
Voice Tonight, the primetime newscast. It has also added Youngbloods, a program
hosted by the under-25 set, to the schedule on Friday nights.
"These shows give us a new, fresher look without
alienating our older audience," Sutton said.
More importantly, the network is considering deals with two
liberal commentators, he said. It already has more liberal and centrists guests, like
Julian Bond or Eleanor Clift, on its existing shows. (Some of those people, he adds, would
not have come on, if the network were still part of the nonprofit organization.) These
guests are there not only to make the shows more balanced, but also to make them more
"It's good to have the other side," said
Sutton. The conflicts "make for great television."
Still, it's the shows hosted by such older, male
conservatives like Weyrich, Robert Novak, Alan Keyes, Michael Reagan and Cal Thomas that
make up the bulk of the lineup. And, while they may have liberal guests on their shows, it
is still the host who sets the tone.
That is not necessarily a bad thing, said Phil Laxar, vice
president of programming for Jones Intercable Inc. Balance matters, but moving too far to
the middle and becoming blander would be more dangerous for a cable network, he said,
since networks live and die not by appealing to the broadest possible audience, but by
finding a clearly defined niche.
Although Laxar said the network's marketing pitch was
"nothing overwhelming," Jones will launch America's Voice on its Savannah,
Ga., system, because "we could afford to give them a try."
Part of this whole transformation process naturally
includes making mistakes. And America's Voice, which is supposed to provide straight
talk for viewers tired of the deceit and double-talk spewing forth from Washington's
politicians and spinmeisters, has made a few, with their truth-stretching first press
One boasts that "the name America's Voice
reflects our nonpartisan positioning," which is, at this point, misleading. Another
states that the network "is currently broadcasting 90 hours of live or original
programming, and can be viewed in more than 16 million homes."
In fact, Sutton said, the network has about 65 hours a week
of programming and doesn't expect to reach 90 hours until the first quarter of 1999.
Meanwhile, Todd Cralley, vice president, affiliate sales and marketing, acknowledged that
while the network is in 28 million homes, it's really in what the cable world
considers "the full-time equivalent" of 8.1 million homes, of which only 1.5
million receive the network via cable. About 3 million receive the network on broadcast
stations (a mix of low and full power) and 3.6 million pick it up via direct-broadcast
satellite or C-band.
Still, Sutton is proud of the tremendous amount of live
programming, which he said generates 36,000 calls a month.
"Talk radio set everybody else up for
interactivity," he said.
The network's hoped-for growth spurt is ambitious:
Cralley wants to double the number of homes it reaches within two years, with
three-quarters of the 8 million new subscribers tuning in via cable.
Right now, however, "analog is such a tough market to
crack," said Michael Ortman, area marketing director for Comcast Baltimore Metro
Systems, especially for another talk/news-oriented network. His recent research shows
viewers are "pretty well saturated" with news and sports and want more
entertainment and culture.
Still, he added, "if digital takes off, their goals
are certainly achievable."
Cralley said America's Voice is "in the midst of
working on a deal" with TCI's Headend in the Sky digital service. "We hope
to have an announcement soon," he said.
And while he is not sure what networks America's Voice
would be linked with to lure operators to pull down their pod, he said, "It
doesn't offer us the homes we need for the short term, but we recognize that this is
the future of the business."
To fulfill their goals, the company beefed up its sales and
marketing staff, which was "virtually nonexistent a year ago," Cralley said. By
adding about 10 new people in offices in Washington, D.C., and around the country in
Denver, New York, Dallas and Los Angeles, the company now has more credibility as a
player, Cralley said.
"It shows you're serious about what you're
doing, that you're making an effort to grow the network," he said.
And America's Voice is certainly making the effort,
with innovative and interactive marketing tools that Cralley believes are more appealing
to cable operators than cash incentives. (Although the network is also willing to consider
forking over some cash, if necessary.)
Like everyone else, America's Voice is looking to the
computer for answers, with Web-site chat rooms and video messaging via the Internet.
Cralley said the video messaging could help drive local operators' modem sales.
A more unusual project is the America's Voice Box, an
interactive video kiosk equipped with a microphone, video camera and touch screen. The
kiosk will be deployed in malls, train stations and other local hubs and will allow
citizens to respond to an issue-of-the-day; the responses would be downloaded and edited
to be shown on the network.
The kiosks would give the cable system top billing, Cralley
said, as in "TCI-Tulsa presents America's Voice Box." And, he added,
there'd be spaces for sponsors, which would generate revenue just for the operator.
Another strong local tie-in is the plan for partnerships in
certain markets with top radio talent. In those markets, Cralley said, the radio DJs talk
shows would be simulcast exclusively on the local systems, preempting America's
Voice's national lineup or its paid programming. This would provide local programming
and cross-promotion for the system as well as all the ad avails, he added.
And, of course, Cralley said, the network will be free for
a period of time, which he hopes will reel in operators looking to offset rising rate
increases from sports networks.
Ultimately, however, Cralley acknowledged that there's
only so much the network can do at a time when capacity is so tight. Looking at all the
networks owned at least in part by Time Warner Cable, Tele-Communications Inc.,
Cablevision Systems Inc. or the broadcast networks, Cralley understands that few networks
succeed these days without some major industry player as at least a part-owner. And so, as
America's Voice continues to adjust and adapt, he said, being owned by an MSO is
"something our board is open to."