Built from the remains of the Faith & Values Network, a multi-denominational religious network, Odyssey is focused on the not always high-rated genre of family programming.
A partnership of Jim Henson Co., Hallmark Entertainment, Liberty Media Corp. and the National Interfaith Cable Coalition, Odyssey looks to take family-oriented programming to a new arena -- sophisticated, thought-provoking programming that kids and their parents can watch together. And build ratings.
Now at 29 million subscribers and expected to reach 35 million by the end of the year, Odyssey continues to battle the bigger established cable networks, including its direct rival Fox Family Channel, an increasingly smaller supply of analog channel networks and a perception among advertisers that "family" programming is dull. President-CEO Margaret Loesch says Odyssey's story is also a tale of the last great analog cable network launch.
Hallmark and Henson are well-suited partners for the project; the two companies have worked together on a host of network "event" shows, such as "Gulliver's Travels" a few years ago.
Ms. Loesch discussed the network's performance and future with Advertising Age reporter Wayne Friedman.
Ad Age: What has been the biggest obstacle in getting this network off the ground?
Ms. Loesch: The biggest obstacle has been the pace in increasing our distribution. It doesn't have anything to do with the content, it has to do with the business deals we have to make.
AA: You went from zero advertisers to a number of blue-chip advertisers in a short time. How did you do that?
Ms. Loesch: We had absolutely no retail advertisers. The only advertisers we had were paid infomercials, and so we went from a zero base. Now we have more than 70 advertisers; 40 [of which we would call] blue-chip advertisers. The response has been excellent.
AA: What does Odyssey offer advertisers that is not available elsewhere?
Ms. Loesch: While often sophisticated or very dramatic in content, [our programming] is something an adult can enjoy without asking a child to leave a room. The result is that we have created a very attractive environment for advertisers. While it is true there are hundreds of options for television, there aren't that many options for safe television. And by safe television, I don't mean milquetoast. I mean high quality dramatic programming.
AA: Is there a danger to taking such a broad approach to programming, in a day and age when so many cable and Internet companies are becoming more niche-driven?
Ms. Loesch: No, I don't think it's a danger. Family television is a niche. What we are trying to do is broaden and expand the definition. We have coined this phrase: "Today's Family." And what we mean is there is no such thing as the traditional family. Family is very fractured and it's multigenerational. And you and I can probably sit together and come up with many different kinds of families. We are trying to redefine what family television represents and raise its age appeal. Look at what "Moby Dick" [on USA Network] did; look at what "Gulliver's Travels" [on NBC] did. They delivered a very broad audience. So you can do that. You can have a broadly defined network and succeed.
AA: Certain people might say that family programming is boring and slow. Can there be sort of edgy family programming?
Ms. Loesch: Edgy may not be the word. Let me just say I had an interesting experience not too long ago when I went to Blockbuster Video with my son. While he was looking for a tape, I saw, across the room, a section called family entertainment. I went over to it and was disappointed to see that it was primarily animated programming or live-action stories that were targeted very young. That is exactly what we don't want to do.
AA: What exactly is the religious element at Odyssey?
Ms. Loesch: We have 30 hours out of 160 hours a week. These are more faith specific or spiritual in nature, and we air these in a morning block and late at night. And we continue to develop how we blend this programming.
AA: Are there specific ways you are building the brand name of Odyssey?
Ms. Loesch: Yes. One of the things we are trying to do is make Odyssey synonymous with Hallmark and the Jim Henson Co. because we know that with those brands, we have a combined 145 years of equity with the American public. We are trying to make Odyssey known for family, and we are trying to age-up the perception of family.
AA: I ask the brand question, because it seems your competitors, such as the Fox Family Channel, are having trouble, according to some experts, in branding themselves. How you do separate yourselves from them?
Ms. Loesch: We separate ourselves by targeting more adults. Well, I'm not an expert on Fox Family. I know that one of the challenges is that `Fox' has stood for something edgy, and `Family' has stood for something else. And they are trying to tackle that issue.
For us, Hallmark and Henson have stood for quality, they are trusted brands with Americans in general. In some ways, we may have an easier job than our competition because of that brand equity.
AA: Are you going to offer advertiser-sponsored shows?
Ms. Loesch: Yes. We are in discussions right now. We [already] have [DaimlerChrysler] sponsoring a Friday night movie.
We are trying to get some sponsorship for our original programming. We are getting a good response from a series called "The Collection" from the Hallmark Hall of Fame library. Never before have advertisers ever had the opportunity to advertise in the Hallmark Hall of Fame. It's always been sponsored by Hallmark.
The first thing we did when we took over Odyssey was look at clutter on television, particularly in cable. And we determined that we would have far less [advertising] inventory than some other channels. We have a reduced commercial load [with] a more appealing environment for the viewers. The result of that is we are looking to get more of our programming sponsored. We have beautifully produced interstitials -- short little quality programs.
AA: What's the commercial load per hour?
Ms. Loesch: Right now, it varies between 10-11 minutes per hour. There is a two-minute window for local [advertising].
AA: Weren't you considering an advertiser-sponsored network logo?
Ms. Loesch: We have created a character through the Jim Henson Co. and Hallmark -- a puppet character. It's a combination of puppets and computer graphics. It's still in development. We do have some interest from a major advertiser in being the sponsor for the character of the project. It would be peppered throughout our air on some funny interstitials. But we are not there yet.
AA: Ratings-wise, how are you doing?
Ms. Loesch: We are starting to get some growth. We are an emerging network. I'm pleased to say in adults 18-54, we have almost a 40% increase for the full day, and in prime time, a 51% increase. [measuring first quarter 2000 versus first quarter 1999.]
AA: What are your programming plans?
Ms. Loesch: We have plans this year, for example, to do 10 hours of original movies, with two original series and eight or nine hours of specials. That's remarkable for an emerging network. Jim Henson Co. recently announced a new Muppet series. We have right now 13 one-hour drama series in pre-production with Hallmark Entertainment, in which Robert Halmi Sr. is producing. It's based on the short stories by H.G. Wells. It's a cross between "Twilight Zone" and a mystery series like "Columbo."
AA: Will the new Muppet series run on Odyssey?
Ms. Loesch: That is our hope. We are in a development stage now.
AA: Will the new Muppet series play in another venue at the same time?
Ms. Loesch: Certainly if it's in the best interest of the project, it could. I am open and thoroughly modern on this issue. I've admired what a couple of companies have done, such as what NBC has done in letting shows air on cable a week later. The majority of our productions will be exclusive to us. But where it suits a project, and where it can get better exposure, we will entertain shared windows.