Public broadcasting station WETA -- in its second foray
into cable -- and The Freedom Forum are partnering to create a regional public-affairs
network, Forum Network, aimed at the Beltway crowd in the Greater Washington, D.C., area,
officials said last week.
The new cable network is the second one that's being
created by WETA, and it will be led by Ed Turner, a former Cable News Network executive,
who was recruited as its president.
Last year, WETA also unveiled its plans to create a
nationally distributed digital-cable network called Fanfare: The Classical Music Channel,
which is slated to launch in November.
Forum Network -- which won't carry advertising, and
which will be a nonprofit entity -- is scheduled to debut late in the spring, Turner said.
This partnership between WETA and The Freedom Forum -- a media-oriented foundation created
by USA Today founder Allen Neuharth -- is being touted as the first time that a
private foundation and a public TV station have joined forces to create a cable network.
The Freedom Forum's $1 billion endowment will largely help to finance the new
Turner said he has talked to all of the major cable
operators in the Washington, Maryland and Virginia areas that the network is targeting,
and he claimed that they were receptive, although no carriage deals for the service have
been closed yet. There are 2.5 million cable subscribers in that region, Turner said.
Forum Network will be free to cable operators. Its lineup
will include rebroadcasts of programs and specials that were originally aired on WETA,
such as The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, as well as live, original public-affairs
Both Turner and Linwood Lloyd, WETA's executive vice
president and chief operating officer, see Forum Network as an outlet for public-affairs
programming beyond the tabloid-type commentary being done ad infinitum now on stories such
as Monica Lewinsky.
"We won't do shows on Marv Albert's
hairpiece," Turner said, adding that Forum Network will be different from C-SPAN
because it will offer "breaking analysis."
At C-SPAN, spokesman Rich Fahle said, "It does appear
that it's going to be a different product than C-SPAN. We can coexist quite nicely
- Anyone launching a channel now will have a tough go initially. But we welcome them
to the fray."
For example, C-SPAN has been trying, with much difficulty,
to get carriage for its C-SPAN Extra -- a live public-affairs network -- Fahle said.
"We can't get that channel launched in
D.C.," he said, adding that it's only been able to get on recently in the DMA on
Cable TV Montgomery in Maryland. C-SPAN Extra now has about 1 million subscribers.
Yet Brad Anderson, an area vice president for
Tele-Communications Inc., whose responsibilities include District Cablevision, said,
"Odds are very high" that the 110,000-subscriber Washington system will carry
Forum Network. It will have the space as a result of a planned rebuild, which will take
two years to complete.
"We're excited about adding
'WETA2,'" Anderson said. "This is a natural for a system that includes
Georgetown and part of the District. And Ed Turner is a pretty impressive guy. Ed is
driven to make this a good product."
Forum Network has also talked to Media General Cable in
Chantilly, Va. Media General chairman Thomas Waldrop said he's "intrigued"
by the network's concept.
"But will it be different than a lot of what
we've got?' he asked. "I'd like to think that it might be. The problem
is channel capacity: You don't want to replicate what you've already got."
Waldrop said he suggested that Forum Network talk to a
regional public library that currently has access to a PEG-access (public, educational and
government) channel about getting carriage on his cable system.
Turner plans to hire 60 to 100 staffers for Forum Network,
which will headquartered at the Newseum, The Freedom Forum's $50 million facility and
state-of-the-art studio in Arlington, Va.
WETA first began exploring expanding into cable as a new
revenue stream several years ago, when it looked like federal funding to public TV
stations was going to be cut off, said Ralph Malvik, its director of cable relations.
WETA hopes to reap several benefits from its two forays
into cable, Lloyd said, even though the two programming services are based on very
different economic models. He denied that the TV station was creating the cable networks
in hopes of capitalizing on digital spectrum and digital must-carry, if it happens. Lloyd
said the two networks are meant to be pitched to operators and to stand on their own.
Officials at WETA, which owns a classical-music radio
station, thought a 24-hour classical-music network was a good idea, and cable veteran Jack
Clifford come on board to help launch Fanfare.
"WETA tries to be entrepreneurial," Lloyd said.
But unlike Forum Network, Fanfare will carry ads and be a
for-profit venture. Fanfare is offering cable operators equity stakes in order to gain
digital carriage, so WETA only expects to wind up owning a small piece of it, Lloyd said.
Fanfare doesn't have any carriage deals yet, but Lloyd
said operators appreciate the fact that WETA isn't trying to "shoehorn an analog
service into a digital shoe."
In contrast with Fanfare, Forum Network will remain a 50-50
venture between WETA and The Freedom Forum, Lloyd said.
"We're really enthusiastic about having more
shelf space to put more programming on," he added. "And we are hopeful that this
will allow us to increase our activity in the production of public-affairs