Tennis Net Taps Comedy's Sales Crew

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The Tennis Channel — an independent start-up trying to keep costs down — has arranged for Comedy Central to essentially pitch the diginet to cable operators on the regional and system level, officials said last week.

Under the unusual arrangement, Comedy will basically act as The Tennis Channel's affiliate sales force out in the field, according to officials from both programming services.

The Tennis Channel, scheduled to debut this fall, will negotiate its own corporate carriage deals — as charter agreements — and will maintain relationships with the top-15 MSOs and satellite providers, network chairman David Meister said.

Comedy staffers will visit individual systems and regional cable officials to convince them to launch Tennis based on those corporate deals, which are often just hunting licenses that don't guarantee a specific number of subscribers.

Comedy's affiliate sales team will conduct The Tennis Channel's system-level launch negotiations, fulfillment and coordination and provide grassroots marketing support. It will also negotiate The Tennis Channel's affiliate deals with carriers outside of the top 15.

The Tennis Channel also hopes Comedy will drum up support in the field by persuading local cable officials to ask their headquarters to ink corporate carriage contracts for the fledgling service.

While this pact is not traditional, other networks have similar arrangements. Discovery Networks U.S. handles distribution and ad sales for BBC America. And Olympusat Inc., which offers satellite delivery for fledgling independent cable networks, also handles distribution — and affiliate relations — for some of them.

The Tennis Channel will benefit from the manpower and established relationships that Comedy Central's 20-member sales team has already forged, according to Meister.

"These are people who can sell very effectively," he said.

This deal will cost The Tennis Channel about half as much as setting up a full affiliate sales team out in the field, Meister said. That means the service can keep its license fees — which officials aren't discussing — low, he said.

The Tennis Channel will pay Comedy Central a combination of fixed and incentive-based fees.

As Comedy is almost fully distributed, its affiliate team relishes the challenge of helping to get a new network launched, said executive vice president of affiliate relations Brad Samuels.

His group will work with Randy Brown, The Tennis Channel's head of affiliate sales. Meister expects Tennis to eventually have a half-dozen people working on its own affiliate-sales force.

The Tennis Channel, whose backers include Frank Biondi and other Viacom Inc. alumni, has not yet announced any carriage deals.

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