×

Niche TV Players Find Their Lanes in the Streaming Wars

Paula Madison Bill Rouhana
Madison: The Africa Channel; Rouhana: Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment

Small independent TV companies are an endangered species at a time when media’s largest conglomerates are focused on the streaming wars and global expansion.

The latest episode of the Variety podcast “Strictly Business” features separate conversations with two such business leaders: Paula Madison, CEO of The African Channel, and Bill Rouhana, chairman-CEO of Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment, which owns Crackle and other AVOD channels.

Both CEOs spoke with such conviction about their businesses but also with no illusions about their limitations in the current climate.

Madison is a former NBCUniversal executive who ran the network’s Los Angeles O&O and later served as the company chief diversity officer. During her tenure at NBCU, Madison launched the The Africa Channel as a private cable venture with her brother and other partners in 2005.

“Being an independent has been a lonely and arduous slog, but it’s one that our family and our investors are committed to,” Madison said. “We committed early on that we wanted this entity to survive no matter what.”

She wanted to show the rest of the world that there is more to the continent than war, famine and exotic animals. It’s taken a long time, but the cultural moment in the U.S. has finally caught up with her vision. Madison explained that Africa Channel bucks the trend in media by preferring to license content produced in Africa even if it means they don’t ultimately own the content.

“We have plowed every cent we ever made back into the business,” Madison said. “That wasn’t easy to do.”

Meanwhile, in Cos Cob, Conn., CSSE chief executive Rouhana is building a bouquet of AVOD streaming channels to serve advertiser-friendly niches. Crackle, which CSSE acquired in 2019, has turned from a money-losing operation to a profit engine for CSSE. Sony still owns about 26% of CSSE.

How did Rouhana pull it off? “That’s because we’re a little company. We’re not a big studio. By their very nature, they have to spend more on everything than we do. I give them a lot of credit. They bought in to our business plan.”

Rouhana has experience as a lawyer specialized in entertainment finance and also ran a pioneering broadband provider, WinstarCommunciations. He took over the Chicken Soup for the Soul book franchise in 2008 and quickly expanded into other media. His experience in managing and building businesses shines through as he explains how CSSE has methodically improved its margins.

“Slowly but surely we’re managing the business into a more and more profitable place where we can afford to invest more in marketing,” he said.

(Pictured: Paula Madison and Bill Rouhana)