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Demise of Participant’s Pivot Reflects Niche Cable’s Diminished Fortunes

The demise of Participant Media’s cabler Pivot offers a stark commentary on the diminished value of cable real estate for niche channels.

Variety reported exclusively that Pivot will go dark later this year. After three years on the air, the channel had a subscriber base of about 50 million households. The fact that Participant didn’t seek a buyer for Pivot underscores how tough a marketplace it is for small channels that don’t have the benefit of must-see programming.

With so many cable channels and growing digital competition, “there is little interest in sub-scale, poorly branded cable networks,” said Michael Nathanson, industry analyst for MoffettNathanson Research.

All told, Participant sank at least $200 million into Pivot, starting with the estimated $100 million spent in 2012 to purchase two cablers that it transformed into Pivot: Halogen TV and Documentary Channel.

According to SNL Kagan, Pivot generated about $62 million in revenue in 2015 and was essentially at the break-even point, with a loss of about $100,000.

From Participant’s perspective, however, it could not sustain the investment needed to take Pivot to the next level in programming. The channel has been in limbo for some time with little activity in the way of new programming or marketing efforts. Pivot started out with a slate of original series — including Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “HitRecord,” which earned an Emmy nom — but in the past two years has been dominated by acquired programming, some of which was non-exclusive such as repeats of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

“The niche cable networks that don’t have much in the way of original programming aren’t really adding any value right now,” said Scott Robson, cable analyst for SNL Kagan. “We’re absolutely seeing some of these networks’ ratings deteriorate and advertising deteriorate without original programming.”

The shutdown of Pivot follows the decision by Al Jazeera America in April to let its news cabler go dark, despite its base of about 40 million subs. NBCUniversal’s G4 bowed out at the end of 2014 with nearly 60 million subs.

Just a few years ago, any channel with cable carriage real estate would have had some value in the marketplace — as evidenced by Participant’s purchase of the little-watched Halogen and Documentary. Al Jazeera shocked the biz by forking over $500 million in late 2012 for Current TV, which was approaching 50 million subs at the time.

The swift revereal of fortune for niche cablers is a clear fallout of the Peak TV phenomenon. Not only are there too many shows, but many believe the glut of channel options is hurting the business overall. “To see a network like Pivot shut down is not really a surprise in this market,” Robson said.

NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke said last month during Comcast’s earnings call that the company, one of cable’s largest programming groups, is looking at further paring down its holdings to plow more resources into its biggest brands.

“There are just too many channels,” Burke said.

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