HDNet’s Cuban runs eclectic network

Shows include MMA, 'Dan Rather Reports'

When Mark Cuban launched HDNet a decade ago, the brash billionaire had no particular preference about the kind of fare he would broadcast.

“I wish I could tell you there was this unique programming vision, but it was more a technology vision, and we’d just listen to our audience and see what worked,” Cuban says.

The content that has gelled for the fledgling network, whose sole mandate is to broadcast exclusively in high-definition, seems so disparate that it could give a regular viewer whiplash. From the Emmy-winning investigative journalism series “Dan Rather Reports” on Tuesday nights to the after-hours T&A showcase “Girls Gone Wild Presents: Search for the Hottest Girl in America” to the uber-brutal mixed martial arts fights that have become a mainstay on Friday nights, HDNet’s lineup runs the gamut in taste and decency.

Still, the typical HDNet broadcast shares one common thread: It wouldn’t likely find a home on any other network.

“There’s no corporate-owned network that’s going to take chances (like HDNet does, knowing) it’s going to upset some people,” says Cuban, who will celebrate the network’s 10-year anniversary next month. “After midnight, we don’t care if a girl is topless. We don’t care if someone curses.”

As Cuban is quick to note, HDNet takes on topics Spike and others won’t. Case in point is Rather. After a 44-year career at CBS, the journo was forced to retire in the aftermath of a “60 Minutes II” segment that called into question President George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard record. That mushroomed into a scandal and the newsman was deemed radioactive amid a media landscape with fewer than a handful of independently owned networks.

“We could take a chance on Dan Rather after everyone else was down on him,” says Cuban, who hired Rather in July 2006 and put his investigative show on the air four months later. “We could say, ‘OK Dan. This isn’t about ratings. This isn’t about anything. Here’s your budget. Go out there and produce shows that are better than ’60 Minutes.’ And that’s what he’s done.”

“Dan Rather Reports” nabbed four news and documentary Emmy noms last month, which put the tally for HDNet — now in 25 million homes — ahead of such cablers as Fox News.

And to Rather’s astonishment, Cuban has remained entirely hands off, which the longtime reporter says is unique in American journalism.

“When he hired me, he promised complete, absolute,

total editorial control,” says Rather while prepping a 9/11-themed show from his Times Square offices, where he oversees a staff of 22. “I try not to be cynical, but I am skeptical. I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m going to become the Dalai Lama.’ But he has not only been as good as his word, he has been better than his word. He just leaves us alone.”

Those who work for Cuban — who co-owns, with Todd Wagner, HDNet parent company 2929 Entertainment — echo Rather’s sentiment, saying he trusts his assembled team implicitly. But he also trusts his gut, which has led to savvy business decisions like selling Broadcast.com to Yahoo! for $5.7 billion at the height of the dot-com boom and creating HDNet despite the high-def naysayers.

“During my Broadcast.com days, I started doing some homework on high definition, and everyone was like, ‘It’s never going to happen (because) these were too expensive,’ ” he says, pointing to a mammoth TV in the living room of his Manhattan high-rise. “This was 2000, and something like that was like $20,000. I looked at it and said, ‘It’s digital. It will follow the price-performance curve.’ It’s very difficult and expensive to start a TV network, but here was a chance for us to get ahead of the curve, and use the technology to create a good television network.”

Part of being a good network means drawing eyeballs, and thus picking up increased carriage. Though HDNet is one of the few independently owned networks (Reelz and Bloomberg are among the other notable exceptions), its financial model is fairly conventional in the cable sphere. The network — which is a free channel on the 100-plus cable and satellite systems that carry it, including DirecTV, Dish and Comcast — derives most of its revenue from carriage fees, not advertising. Time Warner Cable, which was involved in a 2009 dispute with HDNet, dropped it that year from its lineup.

HDNet also draws additional coin from HDNet Movies, which is part of a pay tier, as well as HDNet Ultra VOD. Cuban declined to discuss how much the network collects from carriers, though he says it is enough to keep programming almost entirely original, as opposed to most cablers that rely on reruns of popular broadcast series such as “Law & Order” and “CSI” to drive viewership.

Athough HDNet wouldn’t divulge ratings either (they’re not publicly reported by Nielsen), company brass say mixed martial arts provides a huge lure for men 18-49 who tune in for the network’s 35 live events a year as well as its “Sports Center”-esque show “Inside MMA,” now in its fifth year.

“We want destination viewing, and every Friday night, people know they’re getting MMA,” says Andrew Simon, CEO HDNet Fights. “There’s no other network who’s branded it that way.”

Still, HDNet isn’t the only game in town for MMA — a sport that features everything from kickboxing to Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Spike, Versus (soon to be rebranded NBC Sports Network) and Showtime broadcast fights occasionally. And Fox jumped into the cage last week by inking a multi-year deal with Ultimate Fighting Championship for four primetime fights per year. But Cuban insists that nobody offers more for the bloodthirsty demo than HDNet.

“If you like MMA, you’ve got three events a year on Spike, maybe one on Showtime, and then you’ve got pay-per-view (at about $50 a pop),” he says. “We said, ‘That’s crazy.That’s like only having pay-per-view football.’ Just subscribe to HDNet, and you’ll have 35 live events a year free.”

Given the popularity of live programming and the improved quality of TV sound systems, HDNet is making a push toward beefing up its Sunday night lineup of live concerts, with recent acts including Bush, Ted Nugent and Widespread Panic. With scant competition on the concert broadcast front, HDNet has already amassed a large concert libraries.

The Pittsburgh native, who makes all of the network’s final programming decisions, estimates he spends about 60% of his time on his TV operations, throwing himself into the development of such fall bows as “Celebridate,” “Mr. Personalities Takes on the World,” with comedian Ben Morrisonand “The Super,” a behind-the-scenes look property management.

He devotes the rest of his time to his film holdings, which include Landmark Theaters and Magnolia Films, and to his NBA team, the Dallas Mavericks, which won its first league championship in June.

And though Cuban says he mostly defers to Wagner on their shared film ventures, he’s largely associated in Hollywood with his polarizing move to release the Steven Soderbergh film “Bubble” simultaneously in theaters and on DVD in 2006.

“I don’t care,” says Cuban. “It was the right business move. And nothing’s really changed since then. You’re not going to release the next ‘Spider-Man’ that way, because there’s too much risk. A lot of people tried to make our going day-and-date or the HDNet Ultra VOD pre-release approach as the future of all movies. And that’s never the way we looked at it. We looked at it as a way to serve an audience and give consumers a better option, knowing that these weren’t going to be the biggest movies anyway.”

Cuban was even willing to walk away from the film business altogether when he and Wagner put Landmark and Magnolia up for sale in April. Cuban says the two were curious to see if anyone else wanted to be vertically integrated and to pay as a strategic owner as opposed to a financial investor.

Yet he was surprised that a Landmark/Magnolia for sale sign didn’t generate much interest. Still, Cuban remained sanguine, saying he would have needed a blow-away number before selling.

“Being vertically integrated is a huge benefit,” he says. “We can create something, we can put it on VOD in a way that no one else can with HDNet Ultra VOD. We can have Magnolia distribute it. We can put it on HDNet Movies, with a sneak preview there before it’s in theaters. And then we put it in Landmark Theaters.”

In the meantime, Cuban will continue to use 2929’s platforms to cross-promote. He’ll also continue to showcase the same chutzpah he and, by extension, HDNet enjoy brandishing.

“If we can change the game, if we can upset some people, if we can piss off an industry and make money doing it and make it better for consumers, that’s what’s exciting to me,” Cuban says.