An entrepreneurial strategy for progressive cable TV
by Shai Sachs, Sun Dec 02, 2007 at 10:43:05 AM EST
Yesterday I wrote about an important opportunity for making cable TV a bit more progressive - the possibility of replacing Tucker Carlson with a progressive on MSNBC. The comments on that post showed clearly that there are a lot of people thinking about how to make cable more progressive - ranging from a wide-ranging debate on who should represent progressives on cable TV, to a thoughtful post on how to schedule a progressive evening lineup, and more. I think this kind of energy is really valuable, and I hope that it's not wasted on MSNBC. While the channel does appear willing to experiment with progressive voices, it will never be a reliable progressive cable channel, and we shouldn't expect it to be. Instead, we should be planning to create our own progressive cable channel. Luckily, recent FCC rulings have just made that a little bit easier.
On Wednesday, the FCC slashed rates on leased cable access to 10 cents per subscriber per month. With leased access, independent programmers can pay to gain access to part of a cable carrier's lineup. Rates on leased access were about four times higher prior to Wednesday's decision.
Over the past couple of weeks, I've exchanged a few emails with Bob Fertik, President of Democrats.com, about the FCC's various efforts to regulate cable. We both agree that this decision opens a door for liberal entrepreneurs to begin laying the groundwork for a national progressive cable news channel. (And I should also give credit to a friend of Bob, who spoke to me about some of the broad outlines of a strategy for progressive cable, which I outline below.) The basic strategy is simple: line up prime time leased access on cable channels in a number of major media markets, and put progressive programming in that time. If that strategy can succeed with representation in many major markets, then we might be able to leverage it into a dedicated national channel. While the strategy is simple, it's certainly not easy. Over the flip, I'll have more on what we will need to pull together to get this idea to be successful, and opportunities for liberal entrepreneurs to make money while creating a national progressive cable network.
Costs and advertisers
As a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation, let's consider a cable channel like the Ohio News Network, which clearly covers an important area from an electoral point of view. The ONN has about 1.5 million subscribers, in markets that include Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus. Under the new FCC regulations, leasing 24 hours of access to the channel will now cost about $150,000 / month. Leasing two hours of prime time will cost significantly less - obviously not 1/12th the cost, but perhaps 1/6th the cost of a full day's access; we'll call it $25,000 / month. What that means is that a progressive cable news channel will have to earn at least $25,000 / month in advertising - and probably considerably more, to cover the costs of programming, equipment, facilities, personnel, and so on.
This is the first problem which liberal entrepreneurs hoping to create a progressive cable news channel have to solve: finding monthly advertising. Fortunately, there's not a lot of competition. There are only a handful of shows where an advertiser looking to reach a targeted progressive cable audience can go. The existing progressive satellite TV channels (Link TV, Real News and Free Speech TV) are all non-profit and don't take advertising. Progressive shows like Countdown are not particularly well-marketed to progressive audiences by their corporate parents, and I suspect that the marketing flubs are mirrored in a similar inability to attract advertisers who want to reach a progressive audience. I believe that there is an opportunity to get considerable advertising from companies who are reaching a progressive audience. What's more, as the 2008 election picks up steam, there will be more and more money available from Democratic candidates to advertise on progressive TV. (Whether the candidates wise up and take advantage of the opportunity to reach a geographically and politically segmented audience is another matter.)
I think it'd be interesting to see a liberal entrepreneur create a cable television advertising representation company to sell prospective advertising spots on a progressive cable news channel. Such a company would focus on market research, would identify the demographics of those likely to watch such a channel, would identify products and services which would likely be popular among those demographics, and would make a case to businesses that advertising on such a channel would be good for the bottom line. Naturally, it would be difficult to sell advertising on a channel that doesn't yet exist, but if such a company could succeed in lining up potential advertisers, we could solve an important piece of the puzzle.
Programming and Marketing/Adoption
Lining up programming for progressive cable is a challenging but fun problem to solve. Fortunately, there are already a few solutions on offer - in particular, the lineups for satellite networks Link TV, Real News, and Free Speech TV. The comments on yesterday's blog post also brought to the surface a whole flurry of suggestions for potential progressive media figures who could become talk show hosts and cable pundits, and some pretty interesting thoughts about structuring the lineup to maximize audience flow.
Unfortunately, programming is only half of the problem. The other half of the problem - and what appears to be the reason that Donahue floundered on MSNBC - is marketing the programming to a progressive audience, and/or organic adoption of the programming. Back in 2003, Donahue didn't have executives willing to market his program to a targeted progressive audience; the progressive blogosphere was not yet strong enough to drive organic adoption; and YouTube was nowhere to be found.
He simply could not find an audience. (Update: An alert reader points me to an interview posted at Media Matters - conducted on Hannity and Colmes, of all places - which points out that Donahue's numbers were higher than anyone else's at MSNBC in early 2003. Execs just didn't like the fact that he was so liberal. Yet another reason why we shouldn't trust MSNBC to be a progressive standard-bearer, and should form our own network.)
Nowadays, the progressive blogosphere and other elements of the netroots, like DFA and Drinking Liberally, are plenty strong enough to drive organic adoption of a cable lineup. Indeed, we are already doing just that for Countdown, the Daily Show, and the Colbert Report. What I find a bit surprising is that we are not really doing the same for the three progressive satellite TV channels which are already up and running. I'm not entirely sure why that is, although I have some guesses. For example, it's possible that the channels aren't widely enough distributed (they each reach about 20-30 million households); or that their programming does not really relate to the kinds of topics we tend to talk about in the progressive blogosphere; or that they don't do enough to post their shows to YouTube.
This question is important, because if a progressive cable channel will succeed, it will require either a hefty marketing budget, or broad organic adoption of its programming through YouTube and blogosphere embeds. Since a hefty marketing budget for progressive cable isn't likely to appear out of thin air, we'll have to build the audience for progressive cable through cost-effective blogosphere advertising and word-of-mouth embeds.
Yesterday's comments, incidentally, provided an interesting idea which could both generate new programming, and help drive organic adoption: a YouTube-driven, American Idol-style competition for talk show hosts. (Full disclosure, this idea was provided by my Drinking Liberally co-host.) I could easily see this idea turning into a fantastic website, focused on building a fan base for a variety of progressive media personalities, who would eventually become hosts, guests and pundits for a progressive cable channel. It would be easy enough to monetize a site like that with advertising or ticket sales and other merchandise related to real-world appearances by those media figures. (My guess is that some of the next generation of TV pundits will come from progressive comedians.)
Regardless of whether such an idea would actually fly, I believe it's important to tie together programming development with marketing/adoption concerns. We now have a whole movement capable of driving organic adoption of progressive cable, and we should design programming and outreach efforts which take advantage of that.
Getting a foot in the door, and tying it all together
So far, I've focused on problems in progressive cable development with liberal entrepreneurs can directly address in a way which is sustainable and feasible without a significant investment of capital - things gathering prospective advertisers, building a prospective audience online, etc. However, the success of all of this clearly hinges on the possibility of actually putting together blocks of leased access cable time in a variety of major metropolitan areas. That means finding a string of existing cable channels for which we could actually lease prime time hours. To return to my earlier example, while ONN might be an attractive network on which to lease access from an electoral point of view, the network isn't required to lease access. Particularly for prime time, finding leased access availability is very difficult, because many cable channels already make lucrative use of that time.
The trick will almost certainly revolve around finding channels which are struggling, and cannot currently successfully compete with other channels in their market. It will also probably require at least a few individuals with good connections in the world of cable TV, who will be able to guide an application for leased access to successful completion.
In this case, I think there is some room for progressive activists to join in the effort. For example, crowdsourcing can help identify struggling cable channels throughout the country - identifiable as those channels which are already struggling to field successful and stable programs during prime-time, or even during off-hours. To consider a more elaborate example, progressive activists can work together, perhaps using wikis or similar tools, to develop a sort of pro-forma business plan for a progressive cable channel in a single major media market; such a plan could be adapted and tweaked for a string of channels throughout the country, and could help facilitate successful leased access applications. (h/t to Bob Fertik for this idea.)
At the end of the day, I believe that creating a national progressive cable channel will be a huge and complex undertaking, which will require overlapping efforts from a number of overlapping entrepreneurial ventures, as well as a stable of well-connected cable executives who can help facilitate the process of obtaining prime time leased access. Nevertheless, the FCC's decision this week made the effort much more attainable, and we should make use of this golden opportunity.