Real Estate Network Eyes TV, Digital Launch in 2016. But Will It Sell? (Exclusive)

Is there room on the cable TV dial for another network? The backers of The Real Estate Network, a startup aiming to launch in 50 million U.S. homes on linear television and across Internet platforms in early 2016, think they have a huge opportunity to tap an under-exploited category.

The Real Estate Network was founded by Bobby Atkinson, a former commercial real-estate broker from Minneapolis who’s been developing the concept for the last six years. He’s lined up a few big-name seed investors for the venture: former ESPN chairman and founder Stuart Evey, who is chairman of the startup; and board members Jack Schneider, former managing director of Allen & Co., and Bungalow Media Entertainment CEO Robert Friedman, a former MTV Networks and Time Warner exec.

“Real estate is a vast market,” Atkinson said. “I’m selling a media platform that represents the single biggest asset consumers spend their money on.”

The ad-supported network, to be based in New York City, will comprise a linear channel with original programming along with a website and marketplace that will aggregate real-estate information and connect buyers and sellers.

The venture (dubbed TREN for short) has been funded primarily by Atkinson, with contributions from Evey, Schneider, Friedman and other undisclosed individual investors. Currently, Atkinson is seeking funding from a large investor to ramp up the company’s operations; he declined to disclose the amount invested in The Real Estate Network to date.

Evey, who led the launch of ESPN in 1979 as an executive at Getty Oil, said Atkinson has an ambitious vision for the new network that will resonate with both viewers and the real-estate industry. “What they are going to provide for the average consumer is more than anyone ever had before — access to real estate information anywhere in the world, at any time,” Evey said. “We have already seen evidence of interest from the advertising community.”

For now, Atkinson is cagey on details of how The Real Estate Network will get the necessary real estate in pay-TV operators’ lineups. He said the startup plans to buy a “distressed” cable channel with distribution of about 50 million households, which would then be converted to The Real Estate Network, but he declined to identify the network. Cable and satellite affiliates, in turn, would receive a revenue share of advertising on the TV network.

The plan hinges on the fact that housing is — by far — the biggest expense for most households. In the U.S., the total mortgage debt as of the end of June 2014 was $13.3 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, American homeowners spent $130 billion on remodeling projects in 2013, up 3% from the year prior, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

There’s obviously real-estate programming on TV today, Atkinson acknowledged, such as Scripps Networks Interactive’s HGTV. But, he said, The Real Estate Network will delve deeper, with original shows in four vertical segments: primary residence, second homes and vacation homes, investment real estate and senior living. He even has an idea for a real-estate game show that would award winners a new home.

At this point The Real Estate Network has hired 30 staffers, located across the country, and the venture is looking at leasing office space in Manhattan, according to Atkinson. Heading into the launch, he expects to hire up to 275 employees.

The digital service will be where The Real Estate Network drills into local advertising and partnerships. There are sites like Zillow.com, which provides estimated market prices for homes. But again, Atkinson said he’s going well beyond that. Eventually the Real Estate Network site will include the ability to virtually explore homes, schools and other properties, “something like Google Earth but better,” Atkinson said. He’s registered the domain name therealestatenetwork.com, although the site is just a placeholder for now.

It remains to be seen whether Atkinson can bring the vision to fruition. But he’s convinced the market is ripe for a 24-hour real estate channel that’s coupled with an online presence.

“The television piece for me is a gigantic storefront to get consumers excited about our digital service,” Atkinson said. “We’re building a multimedia platform that is completely unbiased.”

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