Zombie Cable Channels Poised for Second Life Online

Failing TV Takes Page Out of Ex-Print Pubs' Book to Find Sustainability on the Web

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Jim Louderback
Jim Louderback
Before the internet, failed magazines often wouldn't disappear completely; they would just be converted into something else. When I was at Ziff Davis in the '90s, we turned a bunch of magazines into "newsletters." We used to call them zombie-rags: even though they were dead, they still shambled about for a few months, dropping staff like necrotic flesh, until they were finally put out of their misery (usually by chopping off the head -- or in this case firing the EIC and the publisher).

When the internet first started savaging magazines, the "newsletter" exit morphed into the "website" exit. Surprisingly, though, becoming a web-only magazine wasn't always a death sentence. Sure, most of them became zombies, but more than a few were reanimated into healthy media properties. I saw this firsthand, as I helped midwife PC Magazine online while print turned zombie (a transition I attempted to forestall, but ended up accelerating).

When done right, the internet has become a very valuable second chance for a wide range of ex-print publications. And now we're beginning to see the same thing happen with TV.

Ten years ago, failing cable channels would be either ruthlessly terminated, rebranded or subsumed into more successful offerings. I ran content during the launch of the cable channel ZDTV, played a big role in its transition to TechTV, but ultimately the network was devoured by Comcast's G4. Apart from our great distribution network of 50 million-plus households, barely anything remains.

Even today, failing cable channels still get morphed or mutilated. Discovery Health is now Oprah's channel; Fine Living has become Cooking; and Toon Disney is now XD, focused on tweener boys. But the internet is about to change this rebranding mania. Because just as the "website" replaced the "newsletter" for magazines, failing cable channels can now turn to the web for a new lease on life.

WealthTV did it first -- announcing last week that it'll be available on the popular Roku set-top box for $3 a month. With very little carriage to show beyond overbuilders and Charter, the company has clearly given up on cable distribution, and thrown its lot into the web-only world.

First, yes -- but definitely not the last. I can think of a score or more struggling channels that could make the switch to pure-play internet within the next three years. And by going direct to consumers via the latest crop of set top boxes and smart TVs, survival is suddenly possible.

I don't expect any channels from the major networks -- at least at first. But once we see a few independent channels successfully make the transition, we'll see more and more of them move to 100% online as well.

It'll take a while, but history is definitely repeating itself. WealthTV is leading the way, but it's just the first. Some of my likely suspects to follow include Cars.TV, ION, MavTV, Reelzchannel, Pets.TV, ALN and Funimation. Who do you think will follow WealthTV and go web-only? Put your guesses in the comments below.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jim Louderback is CEO of Revision3 Internet Television in San Francisco.
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