People make video for many different reasons. Two of the most common are:
- you want people to see your work, and
- you want to make money.
Even if cash isn’t your main motivation, you probably still want your programs to find an
If you distribute your programming on videocassette, you first have to get your
audience’s attention (through advertising, word-of-mouth or good reviews); then you have
to get the tape itself into their hands (through distribution channels, such as mail order or
retail chains). But if you get your program to show up on your audience’s television set,
then the only obstacle to overcome is the viewer’s tendency to channel surf.
In this article, we’ll cover some of the ways you can get your work directly to your
audience’s television sets without going through the programming executives in the big
networks. We’ll discuss the relative merits of leased access cable TV, low-power
broadcast TV and video dialtone services, all of which could help to bring the power of
television programming to you, the videomaker.
With hundreds of channels just waiting on the horizon, why not claim one for
Getting your show on television is easy. All you have to do is travel to your local
television station and buy an hour of air time.
Unfortunately, not everyone can afford this luxury. Buying air time on a broadcast
station is very expensive. You’d have to sell a lot of commercials during your show or
have a sponsor with deep pockets to pull this off.
Until fairly recently, this was the only route. But recent advances in technology allow
cable and satellite systems to carry more information than they could before. Since they
can’t fill up hundreds of channels with re-runs of Gilligan’s Island (well, O.K.,
they could, but we can hope they don’t), cable stations have surplus air time
available. In many cases, you can lease this surplus time on a channel to air whatever
program you like.
The Federal Communications Commission also likes the idea of easier access for folks
like you. They require the cable systems to set aside a certain amount of channel capacity
This is a new idea to many cable systems. The owners are probably thinking, “Hmm, I
bought all this equipment, ran wire all over the city, took all the financial risks of setting
up a company and now I have to give up part of my air time to anyone who wants to pay
for it because the government says I have to.” For this reason, it’s possible that the cable
system in your area might not welcome you and your programming with open arms.
The cable company doesn’t have to give you any information about leased access. They
don’t have to tell you how to hook up, where to get programming or how to fund it. All
they have to do is give you a rate quote and show you where to plug in your gear. The
rest is up to you.
You Scratch My Back…
But if a cable system has channels that are not yet profitable, their sales department will
probably be happy to sell time to you and may even be helpful in the process.
For example, Channel 53 in Chicago, Illinois is actually advertising to potential leased
access buyers. According to their ad in Leased Access Report, Channel 53
reaches 220,000 cable TV households on the north, south and southwest sides of
Chicago. Also according to this ad, Channel 53 will lease a channel to you for $150.00
per hour. To put this in perspective, it would cost several thousand dollars to run a thirty-
second commercial on a broadcast station in the same market.
You should also be aware of technical requirements that may come up. For example,
Channel 53 asks that you submit programs on 3/4-inch tape. This is a broadcast format,
and although it’s no longer state-of-the-art, 3/4-inch equipment is still more expensive to
buy or rent than S-VHS or Hi8 gear.
Though there may be certain technical obstacles in place, the point is that leased access
air time is available, and not every cable company will make you fight for it.
Cable Rates: Doctor, We Have the Formula!
The FCC has created a formula that tells cable companies what rates they can charge. To
find the rate, you have to know a cable company’s markup (or profit margin) and number
For example, say your cable system buys HBO for $4.00 per month per subscriber and
they turn around and sell it for $10.00 per month to their customers. But only 25% of the
potential subscribers actually order HBO, which has an effect on the formula:
$10.00 subscriber fee
– 4.00 cost of programming
$ 6.00 markup
x .25 percent of subscribers purchasing a premium channel
$ 1.50 implicit value of the premium channel,
per subscriber, per month
Of course, that’s for a premium channel. For a channel included in the basic package,
the cost would probably be closer to 50 cents per subscriber. But remember, that’s for the
whole month. If you only want an hour of time, you would divide that by 720, the
number of hours in a month. The answer is $.00069 per subscriber per hour.
Thus, if your cable system reaches 100,000 households, you would pay $69.00 per
hour. The cable system can also add fees for billing, collection, marketing and studio
services, so ask for an estimate to be sure you’re getting a good deal.
Now you can lease some air time and run your show. A lot of people might even see it.
But how does that make you any money? That depends on what kind of show you
For Example: A Fish Story
Let’s say you want to create a show that features the best fishing spots in your area. We’ll
say it’s an hour show, airing weekly. You’ll have approximately 40 minutes of content
and 20 minutes of time left to put in commercials.
If your out-of-pocket cost on the production of the show (tape stock, mileage, talent
fees for your host, etc) is $3000 per show, and air time costs $69 per show, then to break
even you have to sell all your thirty-second spots for $76.72 each.
But you’re probably not in this business for your health; you’ll want some payback for
your time, effort and intellectual property. Build in another $2000 for your profit. Now
the commercial spots have to sell for $125.90 each. And, of course, this only works if you
sell all of the spots. If you only sell 50% of them, you will lose $551, even at the higher
You could knock on doors of boat dealerships, talk to outboard motor distributors,
maybe even try to land a sponsor who would buy all the spots. But chances are they won’t
bite. Why? Because they don’t know if anyone will watch your show.
You might try to pay for initial production and air the show at your own expense,
hoping that the multitudes will see it. Unfortunately, such a course of action won’t do you
any good unless you can prove someone saw it. That’s where ratings come in.
Your show wouldn’t even make a blip on the Nielson charts (no offense, but the
Nielson’s can’t track small viewerships). There are, however, some new companies that
promise to deliver ratings for multi-channel cable systems in the near future. A company
called ADcom is putting in a system that will be able to track who’s watching what show,
how long they watch it, whether the watcher is a man or a woman and even how old they
are. They will then sell this information to the cable system, whose salespeople will use it
the same way that you want to: to prove that someone is watching. The more people in
your audience, the more money you can logically convince someone to pay for a thirty-
Infomercials: But Wait, There’s More
Another way to make money by putting a show on the air is the infomercial.
You’ve seen these shows late at night, where the host is demonstrating some strange
product while the studio audience goes wild (Host: Look at the shine on that car, and just
a moment ago it was engulfed in flames! Audience: Oooooh!) If you have a product (or
know someone who does) that lends itself to demonstration, you could do a local version
of an infomercial.
Your program would essentially be a long commercial where the goal would be to get
the audience to call in and buy your product. Again, this sounds easy, but there are some
details you need to work out first. When your potential customers call in, how can they
pay for the product? Do you take credit cards? What about personal checks? Is there a
money-back guarantee? Do you have the product on hand (or do you have to buy from
your supplier after you take a certain number of orders), or does the customer have to
wait 6-8 weeks for delivery? And I’m just scratching the surface. If you go this route,
you’ll come across plenty more pitfalls before you’re through.
Broadcasting for the Whole Neighborhood
Once you pick the type of show you want to produce, you can explore other possibilities
besides cable systems. Although regular broadcast television air time may be out of your
price range, you could check and see if there’s a low-power TV (LPTV) station in your
area. You can think of these stations as TV lite, because where a standard station
broadcasts over an area of hundreds of miles, a low-power TV station might only reach
down the block (okay, I’m exaggerating, but only a little).
Often, local cable systems will include nearby low-power stations in their
programming. Then the station has a reach equal to the cable system’s distribution,
instead of its own anemic broadcast signal. If the low-power TV station is not
picked up by a cable system, then you have to decide for yourself whether the signal
reaches enough viewers for it to be worthwhile for your programming. For more
information on low-power television, see this month’s On Ramp column.
Video Dialtone: Operator–Program, Please
Yet another option, and one that’s so new that you may have not even heard of it yet, is
video dialtone. Very simply, this is where the telephone company distributes video and
audio signals to your home through a combination of telephone wires and fiber optic
cable. To use this system, you’d use your telephone (hooked up some way to your
television) to make a connection with a server (a company which will distribute video the
way America Online or CompuServe distributes software and info for computers). A
menu would appear on your TV screen allowing you to pick the program you wanted to
see. This program would then (through a series of complex steps which haven’t quite been
worked out yet) download to your TV for you to watch.
Now let’s say you’re the one with the programming and your customers (the viewers)
will call you to download it. You can either buy the equipment and learn the techniques
that it takes to deliver this type of programming (including sophisticated computer gear,
compression algorithms, and other very expensive techie items) or you can pay a server
to carry your program on their platform.
But no matter how you deliver your program, this much is clear: according to the FCC,
the telephone company cannot deny you access. You can come up with the most off-the-
wall, crazy, strange or otherwise bizarre show and they have to let you put it on video
dialtone. That doesn’t mean anyone will know it’s there, but it’ll be there.
Because video dialtone is so new, no one really knows how it will work, although
several telephone companies are doing tests on systems. Probably, you will negotiate a
contract with a server (which is a company with all the computer gear and telephone lines
needed to make this concept work). This server would take your program, digitize it (so
that the video could be sent over phone lines) and store it on their server. Then, when
viewers called in and requested to see your show, the digital info would pour into their
BBTV (Big Brother Television)
Do you notice a trend here? Information distribution once was in the hands of two or
three major radio or television networks. Then cable systems and satellite distribution
made superstations possible (more outlets for info). If video dialtone catches on, anyone
who has an idea and the means to execute it will be able to get that program to the
What this means to you, the videomaker, is fewer excuses. It’s easier than ever to get
your programming on the air, so if you dream of getting your work on TV, get out there
and do it!