George Clooney may be a superstar, but the only network that jumped at the opportunity to carry a documentary on his trip to Darfur late last year was American Life TV, a small D.C.-based golden-oldies channel owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.
You probably couldn’t find two individuals on more opposite ends of the ideological spectrum than the left-of-center Clooney and the ultra-conservative Rev. Moon.
“Exactly,” says Larry Meli, president and chief operating officer of ALTV, taking great pains to insist the church has no sway over the network’s programming. “The church has never said to us even once: ‘Don’t do this documentary.'”
If the church ever interfered with ALTV’s programming, Darlene Chapman-Holmes, VP of marketing for the network, says she’d resign. “I’d be out of here pretty fast,” she says. “None of the network’s employees are members of the church. And Larry’s a Democrat.”
Meli says the one bit of church guidance he does endorse completely is for ALTV to be a family-friendly network. Bankrolling a 24/7 alternative to the “rampant sex and violence that’s all over the dial,” he continues, is a mission that the church plans to keep fostering even though ALTV hemorrhages money every year. (These losses are easier for the church to sustain because it gets tax exemptions as a charitable institution.)
ALTV’s primetime lineup consists mostly of reruns of series like “L.A. Law,” “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere” and its longest-running repeat, the black-and-white World War II drama “Combat.”
But despite these recognizable series, and a bargain rate (a monthly fee of only between a nickel and a dime for each subscriber), cable operators and satellite distributors are not elbowing one another to buy ALTV.
Comcast Corp., the largest cable operator, with 24 million subs, not only doesn’t carry ALTV on its original systems but has started to drop it from the Adelphia systems it bought in a co-purchase arrangement with Time Warner Cable.
Nicholas Chaiai, president of Crown Communications, the church’s division that runs ALTV, is convinced Moon’s ownership has played a role in Comcast’s decision. “Comcast is not friendly to ALTV,” Chaiai says.
Comcast says its verdict rests purely on the merits of the network. But the bottom line for ALTV is that, since it opened for business back in February 1985 under the name Nostalgia TV, it has managed to sign cable operators reaching only a paltry 10 million subs. (By contrast, 33 ad-supported cable networks each chalk up more than 90 million homes.)
By the time the church bought ALTV in 2001, it had undergone a name change to Goodlife TV. Meli says the network morphed into ALTV two years ago when the license on the Goodlife name expired and the parties couldn’t agree on a renewal.
Whatever ALTV calls itself, neither DirecTV nor EchoStar, the two satellite distributors, has signed to carry it, despite the fact the network has made overtures “from every possible angle,” according to Chaiai. He says he’s hired the cable brokers Daniels & Associates to look for strategic partners in cable and satellite, offering them an equity stake in ALTV in exchange for carriage. But so far the strategy hasn’t resulted in any deals.
“We’re a niche, standalone network that doesn’t have any leverage,” says Chapman-Holmes.
Other new networks are getting on cable and satellite because they’re part of a massive media conglomerate like ABC/ESPN, NBC Universal, the Time Warner division Turner Broadcasting, News Corp. and Viacom.
Says Chapman-Holmes: “Cable operators might not want to carry the gay channel Logo, but Viacom owns it.” Thus, carriage of Logo can be linked with a bigger over-all deal to renew MTV, Nickelodeon, VH1, Comedy Central and other Viacom networks.
Hampered by its small viewer base, ALTV has to fill its commercial breaks, not with slickly produced 30-second spots from Procter & Gamble, but with no-frills 800-number ads. In keeping with the family-oriented blueprint, however, “we won’t take ads for adult services,” says Mark Ringwald, ALTV’s head of programming. “We avoid things like male-enhancement pitches.”
The low-yield ads keep ALTV’s ledgers in red ink; its total net revenue came to $4.5 million in 2006, according to SNL Kagan, which projects a 26% increase this year, to $5.7 million. But ALTV will still lose $14.6 million in 2007 after racking up a $15.4 million negative cash flow last year.
Despite the grim financial prognosis, Chaiai says the church will continue to shoulder ALTV’s losses, convinced there should be someplace on the dial where people 50 and older can go to soak up TV series they wallowed in two, three or four decades ago — and not have to put up with explicit sex, violence and certain four-letter words.