If it were a perfect world–well, a perfect video world–we’d all be rich and famous.
Let me set up a little scenario in Perfectdom. Joey Camcorder utilizes all of his video skills to produce a
pretty impressive and technically adept 30-minute program entitled High School Hidden Video.
The show is taped under cover at various learning institutions, capturing the wacky, real-life turmoil of the
With sponsors for support and a sizable potential audience, all that’s left for Joey is a means of
distribution. Packing a couple of episodes in his car, Joey heads down to the local TV station, where the
manager is waiting with open arms and empty decks. Smart guy that he is, the manager realizes both the
need and want of locally-produced programming. He’s also aware of the strong following this type of show
tends to develop, and the great financial rewards he stands to gain by scheduling such a sure-fire hit.
While the description above is purportedly for those living in a perfect world, it comes quite close to the
truth about successful video productions. Unfortunately, there’s one snag in the works. And this snag is a
biggie. You know when I described the television station manager waiting for the tapes? That’s not gonna
happen. Not by a long shot.
This commonly found barrier to distribution may be the largest, hardest-to-overcome hurdle facing
potential producers today. We can get the technology. We can learn the skills. We can hire the talent. We
can find the locations. But for some reason, we can’t get broadcasted.
Don’t despair, videomakers. The promises of the impending information superhighway look good.
Digital TV, TV on demand, video dialtone–shucks, with all these possibilities, an audience outlet is sure to
arrive. If we can just hold out a little longer…
Fortunately for us, some of that "on-the-horizon" technology is already here in the form of satellite
broadcasting. This form of distribution has actually been around for quite a while. It has only recently,
however, become a viable outlet for independent video programmers. If you’d like to learn more about how
videomakers get their programming onto these networks, read on as we take a little tour of two successful
Case in Point: Channel America
Created by David Post back in 1987, Channel America was to be the McDonald’s of television.
David’s idea was to string together a large number of low power television (LPTV) stations with hopes
of up to a thousand affiliates. Though LPTV didn’t get the support it needed for David to carry out his plan,
Channel America was still launched and went on 24 hours a day in 1988.
"Channel America’s programming takes a very family-oriented approach," begins Allen Christopher,
senior vice president of programming. "We offer a wide mix of mainstream shows–movies, sports, talk
shows. But we’re changing, not so much in the choice of programming as in the way we set up deals with
And this is where it gets interesting for the independent producers out there. "We’ve historically been a
barter network; now we’re moving into the area of affiliate-compensated networks. Think of it in terms of
blocks of programming. One of our partners is a consumer health programming provider. They used to be
on Lifetime and CNBC. Now we’ll be using them for 2 hours a day of consumer-oriented medical
programming. But what they get is distribution. They’ll be locked into guaranteed distribution with us,
which is hard to come by. It’s very important for any program provider to be guaranteed access to their
Another Channel America partner is National Media, the largest infomercial company in the world.
They’ll be providing exclusive infomercial programming to the network for about 6 hours a day.
Doing the math, that leaves about 16 hours a day in which the network needs other, independent-
"We have a program called the Hometown Matinee," says Christopher. "It’s a hosted double-feature,
running Mondays through Fridays. We have give-a-ways on the show–it’s reminiscent of 50s television.
We also have a western serial and movie show called Afternoon Roundup."
To fill the schedules of these movie shows, Christopher relies on his library of movies–a library which
is constantly growing in size. "With our classics and public domain titles, we deal with everyone from the
normal standard Hollywood studio to collectors who sell films out of the trunks of their cars–really! That’s
just how this business is. I’m always looking for new product. If an independent producer has shot a
feature, great. I’d love to look at it."
Plenty of Offers
Channel America gets pitched or approached at least 50 times a week to buy programming. That may seem
like a high number, until you realize that the network adds a couple of new programs every month, in
addition to the many one-time shots that appear on the station.
Christopher watches a minimum of 10 new shows a week, with very few of them making it to the
airwaves. "I look at everything when considering a show. If someone comes to me with a program idea or a
pilot, I’ll tell them a half-hour spot is easier to clear than an hour. I also want to know how many episodes
are in the can. Last week, I watched some programming that was 10 episodes long, complete. It was the
perfect opportunity for a strip show (running the program Monday through Friday). But I got a feeling that
the producers didn’t understand the economics or didn’t have the full sponsor support that was needed to
make an additional 65 episodes. You get a little leary of putting something on the schedule unless you
know that the shows are there."
What Do They Want?
So just what does Channel America need in the form of programming? What type of independent product
is finding its way onto his satellite’s signal? As Christopher describes it, "counterprogramming," or the
process of offering something not found on the major networks, is the key.
"We’re always counterprogramming to the major networks. Right now, I’m looking for niche programs
that have the qualities to attract sponsors. Our network can’t compete with ABC or FOX. They’re in the
mainstream entertainment business. They’re ratings-driven. We’re more concerned with hitting a smaller,
more specific audience."
One program that fit the Channel America bill was The Cathy Fountain Show. Originally a local talk
show known as Eye on Tampa, the program boasts better-than-average local talk show production values
and an impressive guest list. (President Clinton himself has been on the show.)
How did Channel America pick up this program? "With the Cathy Fountain Show, we had seen a press
release on the program, and asked for a screener. She got a lot of favorable press. I watched it and liked it
enough to put on the air."
Keeping Costs Down
An interesting option to programmers at Channel America is what they call their "sheltered launch."
Let’s say you and three or four other production buddies each have a half hour of outdoors-type videos.
Maybe a fishing show, a hiking safety program and possibly a documentary on the exploits of a modern
outdoor adventurer. By combining all of these productions into a 3 or 4 hour block of programming,
Channel America can give it a "launch" as its own mini-network.
"Instead of taking on all the hard costs associated with setting up your own satellite network, Channel
America can "test" the possibilities of the program going on 24 hours a day," says Christopher. "This
method keeps initial costs to a minimum, and gives the producers a chance to see if the programming can
find an audience. The costs involved in doing this the traditional way have gone through the roof. And if
you’ve followed the satellite industry in the past couple of years, you’d be aware of the many failed
launches that took place."
Another Case: AIN (American Independent Network)
The American Independent Network, launched on March 14, 1994, is taking an approach similar to that of
Channel America: counterprogramming.
The network’s co-founders, Don Shelton and Randy Moseley, started the company to provide
programming for independent stations across the nation. They’re also committed to helping the independent
video producer in his or her quest for an audience.
What type of programming are they looking for? As we said earlier, they want shows that offer
something the other networks lack–counterprogramming. "Be original," says Lyn Shelton, director of
Lyn watches programs submitted to her from independents every day. Naturally, not every program that
comes across her desk meets the network’s needs, but several independents have made it into the schedule.
In fact, one of their newest shows, "Fire and Rescue," came to her as an unsolicited submission.
According to Lyn, one of the biggest problems with shows submitted to her is localized content. "These
shows must appeal to people across the country. If you’re living in California, you have to think of a
program that would appeal to people in the Midwest, and vice-versa."
You can submit programs to the American Independent Network on any kind of tape (including 1/2"
VHS), but take note: the final product must be shot on a broadcast-quality format–Beta or 3/4-inch.
And here’s a tip: right now, Lyn is looking for a new travel show. If you’ve got aspirations–or perhaps
even a show in the works–drop her a note.
Where Do I Fit In?
Satellite services are a good example of how independent distributors are helping independent videomakers
find their audience. By taking advantage of today’s technology, you too may be able to find your niche.
The companies mentioned above are just some of the satellite servers now in operation. There are more. So
what are you waiting for–get that screener in the mail!