Nets tightly focused, stay engaging

While not for the faint-hearted, small cable players finding their way, some even thriving

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Rfd-tv may not be the first channel that springs to mind when most media directors think of the cable industry. The service, which stands for Rural Free Delivery and is aimed at the rural American demographic such as farmers and ranchers, sports such shows as "Classic Tractor Fever" and the "Big Joe Polka Show."

Owned by a Nebraska executive, Patrick Gottsch, the network has attracted 50 million subscribers and the attention of Jon Mandel, chairman of MediaCom U.S. "Living in Manhattan, it's pretty useless," Mr. Mandel says.

But even though it doesn't have ratings data, he doesn't discredit the channel's possibilities. If the right marketer came along, it might make sense to advertise, he says.

In fact, it's happening. But Mike Hansen, exec VP of RFD-TV, says instead of selling traditional ads, the network signs up sponsors such as John Deere & Co. and Tractor Supply Corp. The sponsors help generate revenue for the network in exchange for providing "experts" on certain shows, such as a Deere expert giving advice about farming equipment for new property owners. A lot of RFD's programming is supplied by programmers who essentially sell their own sponsorships, Mr. Hansen says.

RFD is one of hundreds of small channels trying to make a go of the multichannel TV business in an age when even some of the larger players like NBC Universal have stumbled in the niche game. That network's pop-focused Trio went bust as a linear TV channel, converting to a totally Web-based service after it lost one of its largest video distributors, DirecTV.

Clearly, niche channels aren't a business for the faint of heart. Nielsen Media Research measures 74 networks, and the 12 smallest of the lot registered a 0 share in total day during February.

Yet conversations with many executives at smaller, niche-focused channels indicate they are following certain survival guides that could ultimately lead to success.

"At the end of the day, the way smaller networks can make their way is through a relationship with their audience," says Lisa Gersh, president of the femme-focused Oxygen Media. Other executives use words like "engagement" and "passion" to describe the kind of interplay successful niche networks make with their audiences.

Oxygen is aiming to connect with its viewers through content like "Mo'Nique's FAT Chance," a special that will air in July featuring the generously proportioned comedienne going on a hunt to find Miss F.A.T. (Fabulous and Thick). The show mines content on, including Mo'Nique's daily blog.

Online Links Key To Success

The Web also is a key to the longevity of the game-show-focused GSN network, which debuted in 1994 and now has close to 60 million subscribers. "A key point of differentiation for our advertisers is interactivity," says Rich Cronin, the network's president-CEO. "We're the only network that allows people to play along in poker games."

Viewers who win collect points, rather than dollars, which they can cash in for prizes, many of which are electronics-related devices supplied by GSN owner Sony Corp. And players can win extra points by answering certain questions poised by advertisers like Burger King. Mr. Cronin notes that while GSN's genre is fairly narrow, it's a topic of appeal to a broad audience.

That same kind of broad-niche concept is at play at OLN, previously known as the Outdoor Life Network. OLN discovered that by focusing on both indoor as well as outdoor sports, it could appeal to a larger group of sporting passions, and John West, senior VP-ad sales at OLN, says it's only a matter of time before the service changes its brand name completely to get fully away from that "outdoor" afterglow.

The broader focus became very clear when it won exclusive rights to National Hockey League games. Last year, NHL games boosted OLN's total viewer impressions 148%, when compared to results in the same time period the previous year, according to OLN's analysis of Nielsen data.

"The important criteria for us are branding and differentiation," says Harry Keeshan, exec VP-national broadcast at PHD, New York. "The advantage that OLN has had since the beginning is the ability to target the active lifestyle, not just in [terms of the] balls and bats criteria ... It's a blend."Clearly, OLN also benefits from being 100% owned by Comcast Corp., one of the largest cable TV distributors. That's also the case at Golf Channel, which has 70 million subscribers.

Like OLN, Golf has also snagged crucial sports rights. As of 2007, "We are the exclusive cable home of the PGA Tour," says Gene Pizzolato, exec VP-ad sales and new media at Golf. With many branded-entertainment opportunities for advertisers, such as "The Grey Goose 19th Hole" talk show, Golf has managed to grow its ad revenue about 22% "every year since 2001," Mr. Pizzolato says.

The network has sparked buyer interest beyond older males of late. Mr. Keeshan cites the younger demos via shows on golf tips and teaching kids the game.

Networks that focus on underserved multicultural communities also stand a chance of attracting special advertiser attention, according to MediaCom's Mr. Mandel.


That's what ImaginAsian TV is counting on. The network launched two years ago and reaches 4.5 million broadcast and cable households. ImaginAsian TV considers its only direct competitor in the space to be AZN Television, says Michael Huh, VP-marketing and strategic development at the channel. (AZN Television is a cable network aimed at Asian-Americans run by International Networks, a subsidiary of Comcast.) What's more, "we believe in being English-accessible." Its shows are either in English or subtitled. "We found in our e-mails, about half our feedback is from non-Asians" interested in Asian culture, he says.

Another nascent network, Africa Channel, wants to appeal to a broader audience than people of African origin. Some of its advertisers are a natural, such as South Africa Airways. But it's also setting up grassroots opportunities as the channel touches down in new markets, in addition to TV and online ad plays. Both ImaginAsian and Africa are international in their subject matter, but they are also privately owned, like RFD.

Whether independent or backed by a cable operator, niche networks can thrive if they hit a chord with a particular audience.

Mitch Oscar, exec VP of Carat Digital, says that the Golf Channel is a "perfect example" of a niche service that has found success. "Years ago, it had very little distribution and didn't qualify as a national buy. But because of unique audience," it's become attractive to advertisers, he says.
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