Startup cabler eyes more upbeat reality

TAC slate includes 'Stories,' 'Afar,' 'Campus'

NEW YORK — Fed up with reality shows that lean heavily on sex and stunt competitions to attract mass audiences, the America Channel plans to create positive shows “focusing on the people, places and things that fall through the cracks between New York and Los Angeles.”

TAC is a proposed cable network in development for mid-2004 that has begun ramping up in two areas: signing cable operators and satellite distributors to carry the network, and cajoling the investment community to pony up the $70 million it will take to get TAC up and running for at least the first three years.

TAC, headquartered in Orlando, has yet to get its first carriage agreement, but Rick Newberger, managing director of Vanguard Media and financial adviser to TAC, said, “The business climate has improved for new cable networks.” He cites the recent launches of College Sports TV and the Tennis Channel as favorable signs that venture capital is finally flowing to cable after a couple of sluggish years. TAC has brought in Waller Capital Corp. to help in getting Wall Street to cough up the money.

Newberger said TAC is open to tradeoffs to get deals with cable operators. For example, TAC is prepared to offer a financial stake in the network to a cable operator for digital clearance on its systems. TAC regards this concession benignly: If operators have equity positions in the network, they’ll give it more marketing and promotion.

Doron Gorshein, CEO and president of TAC, reeled off some of the series in development:

  • “American Stories,” detailing ordinary people who make something of their lives.

  • “America From Afar,” an evaluation at how the media in other countries view the U.S.

  • “Campus Report,” which lends cameras to college students, who then document their lives, warts and all.

  • “Road Trip,” a look at “unique communities, stories and people” as uncovered by a man and a women in their early 20s traveling the country in a Hummer H2;

  • “Occupational Hazard,” which follows workers in “unusually dangerous or offbeat jobs.”

Low-cost originals

The beauty of shows like these is that they’re cheap to produce, Newberger said. They don’t require big salaries for name actors, nor are there any rights fees for programming. So programming expenses would be kept low even though TAC would be awash in original series.

“There may be room in cable for a gentler reality network that’s not interested in dramatic pyrotechnics,” said Bob Thompson, a professor and head of media studies at Syracuse U. “But the series will have to be brilliantly executed and told compellingly.”

Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for the Petry Media Group, said, “These shows are gonna have to be entertaining.” Losak said the keys will be, first, getting average Joes who won’t be boring on camera, and, second, making sure the tape editors wield their scissors creatively so the shows don’t drag.

TAC has drawn up a rate card geared to making cable operators happy. The network will offer them a cash payment up front to carry TAC, and give them long-term financial predictability by creating contracts of up to 10 years. TAC will make the guarantee that even by the last year of a decadelong contract, no operator or satellite distributor will have to pay a yearly fee of more than about $1 per subscriber, making it one of the cheapest networks on the cable menu.

That strategy, TAC hopes, will propel the network to a subscriber count of 25 million by the end of its third year of operation. According to TAC’s business plan, advertising revenues from that total would put the network into profitability for the first time.

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