SBJ/April 30 - May 6, 2007/This Weeks News

Bellamy takes a run at VOD

The Tennis Channel’s co-founder is launching a video-on-demand channel for mountain sports, and he already has signed a long-term affiliation deal with the country’s second-largest cable operator, Time Warner Cable.

The VOD and broadband-only Ski Channel
will be free to consumers.

Steve Bellamy is putting his own money behind the VOD and broadband-only network, which will be called The Ski Channel. Expected to launch in the first quarter of 2008, it will be the latest test of whether sports VOD content can attract viewers and become a viable alternative to traditional cable distribution.

“Video-on-demand is unequivocally the migration forward,” said Bellamy, who left The Tennis Channel last year. “We used to watch broadcast on [channels] 2, 4 and 7, and now we are watching channel 489.”

Over the past several years, many independent VOD-only networks, like the one Bellamy is planning to launch, have failed. They consistently have had trouble getting viewers and attracting advertisers to their programming. Bellamy said those failed VOD channels were “before their time.” By contrast, he said VOD-only channels will work in today’s environment with more tech-savvy consumers.

Citing the cost of launching a full-time cable network, Bellamy said straight VOD channels are a surer way to get cable distribution these days. He cited Comcast’s on-demand horror channel FearNet and Jake Steinfeld’s ExerciseTV as examples of VOD channels that can work.

Much of Time Warner’s VOD content involves repurposed programming from established networks and super localized on-demand content, including high school sports.

“VOD has really not been overly successful for anyone, so he is going into an area that even the big boys are having trouble making financially feasible,” said sports TV consultant Mike Trager.

Still, as Trager noted, most observers gave The Tennis Channel little chance for success, figuring there were not enough tennis fans. If Bellamy is timing the market right, Trager said, he could succeed.

Ski Channel programming will be free to consumers. The channel will get its revenue from ads and already has signed four charter advertisers: Panasonic, Marquis Jet, Fender Guitars and Mirage Resorts.

“With our new $70,000 high-definition television, we see a great opportunity to reach the right audience,” said Andrew Nelkin, president of Panasonic Professional Display Co., in a statement.

Initially, Bellamy does not plan to acquire rights packages for significant ski races, opting to focus instead on everything from instructional programs to rock climbing. The VOD channel also will feature a wide assortment of user-generated content.

Bellamy launched The Tennis Channel in 2003 and left in May 2006. When he launched the channel, he had an impressive group of backers and needed more than $100 million to get the channel going. By contrast, the costs for a VOD channel are more modest, between $10 million and $30 million.

Time Warner was among the first cable operators to give The Tennis Channel carriage.

Bellamy is funding the new channel out of his company, Atonal Sports and Entertainment, though he did not rule out bringing in investors in the future.

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