WE, IFC Get Key Carriage

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Two Rainbow Media Holdings Inc. networks should significantly expand their subscriber rolls, thanks to some recently announced distribution deals.

WE: Women's Entertainment will join competing women's-targeted network Oxygen on Time Warner Cable systems, now that the two companies have hammered out a carriage deal.

The No. 2 MSO also inked a distribution agreement with Independent Film Channel, as did Adelphia Communications Corp., Charter Communications Inc. and DirecTV Inc. Both networks are part of Cablevision Systems Corp.'s Rainbow stable.

Time Warner is expected to launch WE (the former Romance Classics) in 8 million homes by the end of 2001, according to network executives.

The agreement, terms of which were not disclosed, will lift WE's viewing subscriber base to 32 million by year-end.

The women's channel is also revamping its programming lineup and has distribution deals in place that will ultimately encompass more than 50 million subscribers.

And most of WE's distribution will be on analog tiers, including more than 1 million subscribers on Time Warner's New York City system, network executives said. The Time Warner deal comes on the heels of carriage pacts with Adelphia and Charter.

AMC Networks president Kate McEnroe called the pact a milestone. "The deal validates our re-branding efforts as a women's network," she said.

WE is negotiating with several other MSOs, said McEnroe, who declined to specify the companies.

The May 2 deal with WE comes nearly a month after Time Warner signed a carriage accord with Oxygen that will give the upstart service access to 10 million homes, predominantly on analog. But Oxygen's initial rollout on the MSO's New York centerpiece will be on a digital tier.

Like Oxygen chairman and CEO Geraldine Laybourne, McEnroe said the women's-network market is big enough to support three cable networks. The third and most established player in the field is Lifetime Television, which finished No. 1 in the primetime basic-cable ratings for the past two months.

"Time Warner sees the power of women in the market," McEnroe said. "By rolling out dedicated services to that audience, Time Warner see women as a powerful economic force to be reckoned with."

The agreement will also help the network's plan to evolve into an advertisement-based network by fourth quarter 2002.

"Being carried on Time Warner Cable, which serves major markets, is key to our strategy as WE: Women's

Entertainment gets set to participate in the upfront marketplace in 2002," said McEnroe.

IFC's pact with Time Warner guarantees the channel access to 3 million subscriber homes by the close of 2003, said Bravo Networks executive vice president and affiliate sales and marketing Gregg Hill. Coupled with its arrangements with Adelphia, DirecTV and Charter, the Time Warner deal boosts IFC's current distribution base to 17.8 million subscribers, a count that's expected to hit 21 million by year-end, he added.

Much of IFC's new carriage will come from digital tiers, and Hill believes the network has been a valuable digital-cable driver for MSOs.

"Operators see that IFC really does help move boxes into the homes," Hill said. "It's not a new plex service; it's a quality channel that has had six years to work the kinks out."

In other IFC news, the network on May 9 began providing extensive on-air coverage of the two-week Cannes International Film Festival. IFC's effort also includes more than 300 pages of Web content from the festival, accessible at ifctv.com, said network executives.

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