Company Answers Its Call To The Small Screen

After planting its feet firmly in theatrical and video and building a solid programming pipeline from Hollywood, Sam Film is now gearing up for a major launch on the small screen.

The company expects to ink a deal before the end of March to start up and distribute as many as four cable channels this fall in conjunction with Iceland’s telephone company and three other production and media partners.

The new venture is part of Sam Film’s long-term plan to exploit its product through every window, from theatrical through homevideo to TV. The project, expected to break even in 18 months, is not the company’s first venture into broadcasting, but it’s likely to be the most far-reaching.

Last year, following a dispute over the station’s future direction, CEO Arni Samuelsson divested shares in Channel 2, the terrestrial subscription general entertainment channel, and launched youth-oriented Radio 95.7, sited right next door to Sam Film’s biggest multiplex, the Cinema Palace. The company’s new TV venture, however, will be the first cable operation in Iceland. It could place Sam Film and the tiny territory squarely on the high-tech path that leads to the 21st century.

“Iceland is a country begging for new television channels,” says Sam Film GM Bjorn Arnason. While U.S. cablers scramble to install new fiber-optic lines which will allow them to deliver digital services – and, especially, to download VDT (Video Dial Tone) – Iceland is already 100% fiber-optic cabled. “It’s just waiting to be hooked up to TV homes,” says Arnason.

Under the deal being negotiated, telecommer Post & Simi will deliver up to four channels featuring a mix of news, sports and music, plus Sam Film’s own general entertainment channel to some 10,000 homes next October in a trial run. A potential 80,000 homes can be added later.

Sam Film’s partners are CD importer/distrib Japis, subtitler Texti-HF, and Iceland’s largest indie prodco, Saga Film.

Arnason says the initial bundle of channels will operate like any other cable service. However, downloading movies through VDT won’t be far behind, he claims.

Local competition is from pubcaster RUV (Iceland National Broadcasting) and Channel 2 (Icelandic Broadcasting Corp.). In addition, several niche services like Children’s Channel, CNN Intl. and ESPN are beamed down by satellite to the tiny number of subscribers with dishes.

RUV is partly supported by ads, but Icelanders still have to cough up a monthly license fee of some $30 to support it. To tune in to the privately run Channel 2 costs another $50 a month.

For $80 a month, you still get a “poverty of programs,” says Arnason, who claims Sam Film will have no trouble filling the hole in the market. He says RUV buys too much prepackaged product (in lots of 100 or more) because of budget limitations, and that Channel 2 simply costs too much for what it broadcasts.

“There’s plenty of room in Iceland for another channel,” says Arnason, “and people here will welcome it. They want competition, and we can give them cheaper rates because we don’t have the enormous debts that Channel 2 has.” Arnason says he’ll undercut RUV’s $50 charge but won’t be tied down to an exact figure yet.

“Also, we won’t be offering local news,” he adds. It’s costly (to produce) and viewers can easily get it from the government channel, which they have to pay for anyway.”

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