Gospel cabler’s in works

Constellation and Alpine fund religious tune station

Two former cable net veterans are teaming up to launch the 24-hour Gospel Music Channel, an independently owned rarity in the conglom-dominated cable network biz.

The brainchild of former Discovery Networks senior exec Charles Humbard and former Turner Entertainment Networks prexy Brad Siegel, net is scheduled to launch in the fourth quarter.

Advertising-supported Gospel Music Channel said it already has a greenlight for carriage on Cox Communications systems and will start broadcasting as a digital basic service not later than October.

Targeting what it believes to be a large, underserved and “zealously” loyal constituency of “faith-based” music aficionados, channel will feature both acquired and originally produced programming.

Gospel and country music legend Larry Gatlin has signed on as an artistic director for the channel, which is in discussions to secure other top music programmers repping key genres of gospel music.

Unique for a startup cable net these days, Gospel Music comes to the carriage-negotiation table fully funded by two private equity groups: Bear Stearns-backed Constellation Ventures and Alpine Equity Partners. Channel will be Constellation’s third cable net, having invested in TV One with Comcast and Radio One, as well as the College Sports Network.

Constellation has some $450 million under management to be invested in early to midstage media and communications companies. It’s also one of the few private equity groups on Wall Street prepared to entertain the inherent risk of backing startups.

But Constellation managing director Dennis Miller said cable nets historically have had the highest return on investments in the industry as congloms clamor to buy them up. “We like to pick niches with big advertiser demand, little direct competition and that come with strong management teams attached,” he said.

While backers would not disclose budget or total investment to date, they said GMC’s cost structure is significantly less than that of a typical startup.

Channel HQ will be in Atlanta, with additional production offices in Nashville.

The market for gospel music, in its broadest definition (worship, adult contemporary, Southern gospel, Latin, rock and urban/R&B) is larger and more geographically diverse than many realize, said prexy-CEO Charles Humbard: Some 14,000 radio stations feature gospel music in its various rock, country and R&B manifestations, reaching some 80 million listeners.

One of the fastest growing segments in recorded music, total gospel record sales reached 50 million units last year, representing about 8% of all U.S. music sales. And while 23% of those sales derived from consumers in the Southeast, the second largest market was the Pacific region and greater Los Angeles in particular.

Humbard added that all the major record labels have embraced the genre and have expressed enthusiasm for a TV outlet for their artists.

In addition to musicvideos and other acquired programming, net will feature awards shows, biographical documentaries, concert series and a talent search show, “Home Town Gospel,” that will scour the nation’s churches for up-and-coming talent.

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