Barry Diller and Stephen Chao are returning to their roots-the Fox broadcast network and gritty reality shows like Cops
-as inspiration and fodder for Crime, a new digital cable network.
Crime aims to assault the stronghold that Court TV has enjoyed in crime-and-justice programming during the past two years.
Diller, chairman of USA Networks Inc., and his USA Cable unit this fall plan to launch Crime with Cops
creator John Langley as co-founder. USA is acquiring his Web site, Crime.com-which offers crime-related information and entertainment-as the new channel's interactive component.
Crime's goal is to be "the No. 1 destination for all that is crime." Slated for its lineup are several original reality series produced by Langley and fictional fare like theatricals.
USA Cable president and Fox veteran Chao last week contended that although cable networks such as Court TV, A&E Network and even Discovery Channel-with FBI Files
-explore parts of the crime genre, none fully delve into it or dominate it.
"Court TV does a very good job," Chao said. "There's an overlap [with Crime], that's for sure, but their focus, as the name Court TV indicates, is on the courtroom.
"There is a court bias to the storytelling in their programming. That is not our programming bias. Crime is about crime, not about the criminal justice system."
Crime will be ad-supported, according to Chao, who pioneered crime-oriented reality programming like America's Most Wanted
when he worked with Diller at Fox. Crime has no distribution deals in place, but is talking to MSOs, Chao added. But the challenge of launching a cable network in today's environment is considered particularly daunting for any programmer, with the ad market soft, distribution scarce and digital boxes still rolling out.
Court! We're Different
With respect to the battle to gain carriage for Crime, Chao said: "With very compelling programming, we'll get there. The consumers and MSOs will vote..With the right idea, there should be no fear of launching digital networks right now."
Court TV officials were quick to point out that Crime will be much different from their network in that it won't be doing trial coverage and has no carriage base.
Court TV chairman Henry Schleiff said Court TV's position with respect to Crime was similar to that of Lifetime Television vis à vis Oxygen. "There's no competition without distribution," he said.
"Barry Diller is still one of the most astute programmers and his programming instincts are second to none," Schleiff said. "Accordingly, we take it [Crime] at Court TV as further confirmation of the appeal of the genre of crime and justice that we cover. Imitation is certainly a form of flattery."
Court TV, which is co-owned by AOL Time Warner and Liberty Media, is now in 55 million homes and has been on a ratings upswing for two years, since Schleiff came on board and added off-network fare such as Homicide: Life on the Street
-and even Cops
-to its schedule. Court TV has also shelled out a launch fee of $5 per subscriber to help boost its distribution.
Competition for distribution has become so great that some networks are even offering up-front cash launch fees for digital carriage, in the amount of $3.50 or so per subscriber, as they do for analog launches, sources said.
USA Cable officials declined to comment on what Crime's license fees will be; whether it would pay up-front cash launch fees for digital carriage; or how Crime may be packaged with other USA networks.
With respect to Crime, Cable One vice president of strategic marketing Jerry McKenna said, "The real issue is the quality of the programming, and does it do it new and differently?"
CableOne dropped Court TV on some systems years ago, according to McKenna, when it was low-rated and prior to its Schleiff-led turnaround.
"Their ratings had taken a huge nosedive some years ago, although now they're up," McKenna said. "But now, it's an issue of bandwidth."
Court TV is only carried on a few Cable One systems at present, and McKenna said he'd probably consider it for a digital tier before Crime.
At the National Cable Television Cooperative, senior vice president of programming Frank Hughes said he'd have to see Crime's rate card.
"It's kind of like a digital Cops,"
Hughes said. "I'm ambivalent, I guess. I'd have to see and hear more about what their plans are. And if it's not on HITS [Headend in the Sky], we're less interested."
Langley worked with Chao on Cops
for Fox in the late 1980s.
Langley will create and produce original series for Crime such as CrimeScene,
a weekly talk show to feature defense attorneys, law officers and crime victims; as well as Police Beat,
a daily reality strip hosted by a veteran police detective. Crime will also air theatricals, such as Dead Man Walking
and Con Air.
Langley's Crime.com once had a partnership arrangement with Court TV. The network owned a small stake in the Web site, but no longer does.
EX-NOGGINER AS GM
Langley called USA the ideal partner for the Crime channel, because its vision is similar to his, aiming for entertainment rather that Court TV's news and documentary approach.
"We wanted a broad-based genre play in the crime arena," Langley said. "We made the investment to be sure to have a category killer."
Doug Lee, the CEO of Crime.com, will serve as general manager of the cable channel. He helped oversee Nickelodeon's launch of Noggin.
Crime is a big departure in growth strategy for USA Networks, which has been one of the few programming giants that hasn't recently launched a cable network from scratch. Instead, it has built its portfolio by acquiring properties, including Sci Fi Channel, and most recently Trio and Newsworld International. Diller recently passed on a chance to acquire Rainbow Media Holdings Inc., with such holdings as Bravo.
USA will relaunch Trio later this year with a new programming lineup, according to Chao. USA Cable president of emerging networks Patrick Vien is in charge of that effort; Crime also falls under his wing.
Referring to the lag time in retooling Trio, Chao said, "It does take some time to organize the programming and the marketing."
Vien couldn't be reached for comment on the specifics of Trio's relaunch.