It’s been a long time since the “M” in MTV stood for music, but cable network AXS TV is trying to fill the void with a boomer/Gen X-heavy mix of shows hosted by venerable rockers Sammy Hagar (seen above, with Taylor Hawkins and Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters) and Eddie Money, as well as concerts, rock and country documentaries and — shades of Kurt Loder — legendary newsman Dan Rather interviewing the likes of Rod Stewart, Ringo Starr, Toby Keith, Joan Baez, Buddy Guy, Dickie Betts, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kansas.
“We’re a brand that celebrates classic rock in all its forms, a pure music channel for what we like to call the ‘salt and pepper’ demo,” says the channel’s Chief Marketing Officer Dena Kaplan. “Fans are starting to find us, and when they do, they like what they see and continue to come back.”
But with rock ‘n’ roll on the wane as a cultural barometer, one has to wonder about the future of a network whose viewing audience is in the hundreds of thousands. Even in a niche universe, such numbers don’t necessarily move the dial, even as you flip past it. Take, for instance, MTV’s Palladia, which originally started as Music High Definition in 2006, then changed its name two years later and was later rebranded as MTV Live in February 2016. AXS TV admits its audience skews towards an older, baby boomer demo, but also insists it attracts a sizable younger demographic undoubtedly turned on to classic rock by their elders.
Still, the network’s old-school approach to cable distribution doesn’t exactly jibe with today’s streaming, mobile-centric content hubs. “You’ll need a detective to locate that millennial who’s grown up on YouTube and finds that channel on cable,” says longtime music industry exec Allen Kovac, whose Eleven Seven Music label is Mediabase’s marketshare leader in rock for the year. “Even that older demo is attuned to the new technologies once their kids introduce them to it. It’s an old model that people are trying to save, but there’s no future in it. Cable television is the modern-day equivalent of an eight-track tape.”
Jonathan Wolfson, who manages Daryl Hall & John Oates and Loverboy, among others, originally signed a distribution deal with Palladia to carry the web series “Live at Daryl’s House.” Now a BMG property, the franchise is looking for a new broadcast partner. “I would 100% consider AXS TV as a home for ‘Live from Daryl’s House,’” says Wolfson. “Other than MTV Live, there aren’t really any cable channels like it. I don’t think classic rock is dead. It just continues to soldier on as a genre and a demographic. It’s not just about Boomers or Gen X’ers. Every night, I see 40-year-old parents with their teenage kids at Loverboy shows, millennials and even younger.”
Like Palladia, AXS TV’s roots are in high-definition, with HDNet, one of the first dedicated high-def channels, co-founded by Mark Cuban in 2001 as a male-directed blend of sporting events and concerts before rebranding in 2012 after partnering in a joint venture with Anschutz Entertainment Group, Ryan Seacrest and Creative Artists Agency.
“We were looking for ways to market live entertainment and concert-going,” says President of AEG Television Charles Hirschhorn. “And we’ve done pretty well given a very tough environment for independent cable networks.”
With carriage on all major cable systems, as well as streaming services DirecTV, Sling TV and Philo, AXS TV has managed to raise its potential reach from 27 million to 55 million in less than six years, thanks to a blend of original shows, themed programming blocks and off-network runs such as its exclusive on “The X Factor U.K” (which airs on Sunday and Monday nights 24 hours after its British premiere) and “Nashville” (which airs in daytime). The channel recently picked up “The Ronnie Wood Show,” an interview program hosted by the Rolling Stones guitarist in which he recently went one-on-one with old pal Paul McCartney.
“The goal was to capitalize on AEG’s presence in the live music space and go all-in by highlighting festivals and concerts,” says CMO Kaplan, though AXS TV has cut down on its live festival coverage in favor of a show like “Trunkfest,” with longtime VH1 and radio host Eddie Trunk doing the heavy lifting at various events. The channel still broadcasts the annual Farm Aid live, as it did recently.
In fact, Evan Haiman, AXS’ VP of music programming and production, points to the likes of Farm Aid alums Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews as being “right in AXS TV’s viewership wheelhouse,” along with emerging country artists Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton.
Other initiatives at AXS include True Story Tuesdays, a block of original shows like “Rock Legends,” “The Day the Rock Star Died” and “The Big Interview with Dan Rather” along with “Docs That Rock,” which recently featured documentaries on Bruce Springsteen, Alan Jackson, Ritchie Blackmore and Kansas, the latter a tie-in with Rather’s program.
The original programming slate includes reality shows such as “Rock and Roll Road Trip with Sammy Hagar,” which production chief Haiman describes as “a rock version of ’Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,’” and “Real Money,” with veteran policeman-turned-rocker Eddie Money. The newest addition, “The Top 10 Revealed,” is a listicle show hosted by up-and-coming in-house personality Katie Daryl, who’s a TMZ alum.
Although viewership is relatively small compared to other networks (measured by Comscore, the company does not divulge its numbers), AXS TV still boasts an impressive line-up of national advertisers, including Netflix, Hard Rock Hotel and Casinos, Union Bank and disaster recovery company Belfor. AEG uses AXS TV as part of its own advertising portfolio, which includes an in-venue presence and tour visibility.
“The growth curve for live entertainment is going in the right direction,” says AEG’s Hirschhorn, who points to live E-Sports as a possible area of future growth for AXS TV, which runs a Friday night vertical featuring live Mixed Martial Arts, New Japan Pro Wrestling and, most recently, Los Angeles Lakers owner Jeanie Buss’ new “WOW” or Women of Wrestling” show.
And while AXS TV doesn’t have its own app, nor streaming capabilities outside of its cable and satellite partners, the little channel that could still attempts to differentiate itself from the glut of alternatives.
“We’re still bullish on being in the linear space,” adds marketing exec Kaplan, whose experience includes stints at Discovery Channel’s Hub Network, a joint venture with Hasbro, as well as NFL Network and Sony’s game show channel. “I love a good fight. I love working with independent channels. There’s a certain spirit, tenacity and vibrancy. We’re trying to be very aggressive in our carriage. We have a great deal of appointment, time-shifted viewing. We will continue to put our content where people will see it. We’re on an upward trajectory. This is an exciting brand to be part of.”