Carlos Slim backs digital TV venture

Ora.tv targets digital platforms, on-demand programming format

It’s going to take a lot more than Larry King to get a new digital-only TV network off the ground.

The ad-supported TV network is being launched by Carlos Slim Helu, acknowledged as the world’s richest man, and on Monday CEO Jon Housman offered key clues that give some sense of what is in store beyond the hiring of King, who has an unspecified equity stake in the venture.

The venture, dubbed Ora.tv, is an ad-supported TV network that will bypass traditional multichannel operators in favor of digital platforms. It will offer a mix of news and entertainment programming, some in the traditional formats familiar to TV watchers and some out of those molds in ways that take advantage of the interactivity available to users of digital platforms.

Ora.tv will not be a linear channel but a collection of on-demand programming options.

Housman expects to enlist other household names to play on-air roles in Ora.tv, though it will introduce new faces as well.

He said Ora is going for broad appeal as opposed to the niche focus that most cable nets adopt in pursuit of some specific audience and/or thematic concentration. “Larry is a perfect example of that approach — someone who reaches across different demographics and different categories of audiences,” he said.

While Ora is intended to bypass cable or satellite in order to exist as a content source for PCs, wireless devices and connected TVs, Housman acknowledged that the venture could pop up in the multichannel world as a VOD-only option.

Housman wouldn’t divulge how much Slim is prepared to sink into Ora.tv nor the entirety of his vision for what Ora will be.

The service is backed by Slim’s America Movil, a wireless service in Latin America with a new hunger to get into the content biz Stateside. The net aims to launch some time this year.

One big advantage that Ora.tv (“Ora” translates to “now” in Italian) has going in is deep pockets. “To build a franchise like this is not free, and obviously the Slim family has significant resources that allow us to be in it for the long term,” said Housman, former prexy of digital journalism at News Corp.

King, the 78-year-old fixture of cable news finds himself in the unlikely position as poster boy for a digital startup. But the vision for Ora.tv is so nascent that there’s no clear rules of the road.

What Ora.tv is not is a network in the Oprah Winfrey sense of the word; it won’t be an extension of King or any other celebrity as a one-man brand. King is a key piece to the puzzle Housman is trying to put together — not the centerpiece.

Though Slim’s company concentrates its activities in Latin America, Ora is primarily intended to serve the U.S., though Housman said the company is keeping its eye on synergies with the Latin American market. Even as Ora.tv seeks to become a destination brand in the U.S., that same content can be utilized back at Slim’s wireless empire as well.

Ora.tv will subsist entirely on ad revenues. The strategy is the opposite of the tack taken by what may be considered the most successful digital-native network launched to date: GBTV, the Glenn Beck-fronted effort that subsists entirely on subscription revenue. Last year, his paying audience was estimated at well over 200,000 — more than some cable channels muster and enough to bring in over $20 million in its first year.

Whether Ora.tv will be able to muster the scale that can translate to meaningful revenues is a central question. Though Hulu drew about $500 million in ad revenue last year, even a business that big couldn’t subsist on that revenue stream alone, adding subscription option Hulu Plus to help take the edge off its programming costs. While Hulu may not be a fair comparison to Ora.tv given that the former’s focus is on acquiring licenses to primetime programming drawn from its owners, affording enough original programming to call itself a network will lead to steep expenses at Ora.tv.

Ora.tv’s approach is different than that of some digital-only networks that have existed for years because they cater to a niche. For instance, Revision3 is a independent service that’s achieved scale in the space by focusing on tech and lifestyle programming that targets young adults.

But Ora.tv could find itself getting into the market at a time when the growth of connected devices could make the establishment of a new network brand a little easier than it was for some of its predecessors, which had to claw their way to viability on the open Web. Last month, research firm In-Stat found that shipments of connected devices of all kinds will exceed 92 million worldwide by 2016.

(Jill Goldsmith contributed to this report.)