Comedy net plays Tennis

Cablers entering into unique agreement

Comedy Central is doing something dramatic for a change, breaking precedent by taking on the clearance of a network with which it has no financial connection.

In a joint announcement with the Tennis Channel, Comedy Central said it will start trying to line up cable systems to buy Tennis, which plans to start operation in the fall.

“We’ve got the relationships at the cable-system level that we’ve built up over the last four years,” said Brad Samuels, executive VP of affiliate relations for Comedy Central. “Tennis Channel would have to hire people, train them and get them up to speed.”

Dave Meister, chairman and CEO of Tennis Channel, acknowledges that “the time and expense” of putting together a staff to sell the network to cable systems were causing consternation to him and his staff.

So when Samuels contacted Randy Brown, a Tennis Channel executive, about helping the network get subscribers, Meister said yes, despite the fact that no other network had even entered into this kind of arrangement with an outside channel.

The timing was perfect for Comedy Central because its affiliate-sales people were sitting around and twiddling their thumbs, having pushed the network to a strapping 78-million subscribers over the last four years, which is close to full cable- and satellite clearance of the U.S.

Comedy Central’s first task will be to start clearing cable systems owned by some of the top cable operators as soon as Meister signs what are called hunting licenses with these operators. These licenses give Tennis permission to assign Comedy Central’s staffers to individual cable systems to work out deal specific to those markets.

Tennis has not yet announced any such deals with either cable operators or satellite deliverers.

Samuels said one of his pitches to operators is that Tennis, as part of a digital tier of niche cable networks, could serve as one of the lures that would get subscribers to buy a digital box and not cancel it after three or four months, as masses of people have done in the last year.

Comedy Central is co-owned by Viacom and time Warner Entertainment. Tennis Channel is a privately held company whose key investors include such former Viacom executives as Frank Biondi, Tom Dooley, Terry Elkes, Philippe cq Dauman, Ken Gorman and Ed Horowitz.

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