THE WAY NEW CHANNELS serving niche after niche after have succeeded on both sides of the border should mean that no one will question any longer whether or not we “need” a fishing channel, or a soccer channel or a gaming channel.
And Insight Sports, the owners of World Fishing Network and GOLTV Canada – and operators of Canadian Gaming Television – is banking on the fact it has tapped into a trio of still underserved niches.
It’s not like Insight doesn’t know the TV industry. It’s not like the networks aren’t very well financed, either. Insight Sports has significant investments in The Score and NHL Network and through it’s wholly owned Edmonton-based subsidiary Aquila Productions, produces programming for broadcast television (Be A Player, The Business of Sports, CFL Crunch, ICE), in-arena scoreboards and DVD home entertainment (Gold Rush 2002, Ultimate Gretzky). John Brunton, chairman, is also president and CEO of Insight Production (Canadian Idol, Falcon Beach, The Juno Awards). Insight Sports’ principal shareholders include Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment chairman Larry Tanenbaum (Kilmer Enterprises Inc., a subsidiary of Kilmer Van Nostrand), MWI & Partners, a private equity fund, and IMG, a global force in athlete representation and event management.
So, while Insight may be somewhat new to the traditional broadcasters running most specialty services in Canada, the experience and backing is there. Plus, the company has hired industry veteran Mark Rubinstein (CHUM, Yahoo! Canada, Alliance Atlantis) as its president and COO and also brought in other talent, like former Corus exec Sean Luxton, who is Insight’s v-p affiliate/content distribution.
With casinos and poker popularity at an all-time high, the World Cup of Soccer coming in 2006 - and did you know 4.5 million Canadians fish, and that pro bass anglers can earn half a million a year? – these three new channels are interesting additions to a crowded dial.
Oh, and Insight is also a backer of pay TV applicant Spotlight TV, however, we’re not talking about that here, as the company awaits word from the Commission (but, the buzz is that Spotlight could earn a new “category one digital pay channel” license, meaning must-carry for all those offering digital distribution).
What follows is an edited transcript of a chat between Rubinstein (right) and cartt.ca editor and publisher Greg O’Brien.
Greg O’Brien: So, the first one out of the gate this fall was CGTV or Gol?
Mark Rubinstein: CGTV was on (October 19th).
GOB: What’s the response been to the channel from distributors?
MR: The plan was to launch with Rogers first and then complete the rollout of the channel through Q1 2006. So now, roughly 700,000-plus Rogers (digital) customers as well as Mountain Cable customers have all had a chance to experience the channel and that will be extended out significantly through Q1 and Q2 2006…
The reaction has been that it’s likely one of the last great unfilled genres of specialty television.
GOB: I haven’t had the chance to see it yet. It’s not in my area.
MR: It’s a channel that speaks to people who love all things gaming and gaming-lifestyle-related. Everything from casino style games like poker, baccarat and keno even to far more historical kinds of gaming like bingo… and bingo programming is actually of interest to a large number of people.
GOB: They’ve had it on community channels for years.
MR: Exactly. And, the channel also has instructional programming, like how to play blackjack or poker. It also speaks to people who like to go to casinos, the lifestyle, who nowadays are going as much for the gaming as for all the rest that’s offered: the restaurants, shopping, spas, live entertainment.
GOB: Are you benefiting at all from the current poker popularity?
MR: Absolutely. I think you see more and more conventional broadcasters looking at poker as a genre of programming people want to watch and for us, the channel isn’t just about poker, although the service will certainly address that. It’s really about the breadth of what gaming is and can be.
GOB: Will it look world-wide, or concentrate its programming on North America, because there are a lot of different sorts of things people gamble on around the world?
MR: I think the programming aspirations for the first couple of years are to have the channel address the kinds of games that Canadian viewers are accustomed to – playing, seeing, wanting to understand, learn how to do better, etcetera.
As you may know, the other really fantastic opportunity associated with the channel is to enable potential iTV opportunities as part of the forum because it’s not a leap to think about wanting to interact with what you’re seeing on television.
GOB: Have you started that part of it yet?
MR: We’re still in development on the application, but there is tremendous amount of interest from the distribution community about the potential.
GOB: So it will work with the set top box, but will they be just fun games, or will customers actually be able to gamble their money?
MR: Right now our short to mid term plan is it will feature a variety of play for fun games. You have to take this in steps and the first one is to work on the front-end application, on middleware development and with the distribution community to align our objectives and our interests.
GOB: How far away are you from the middleware aspect being done. I’ve seen all kinds of iTV middleware applications which have come and gone, not necessarily because iTV might not be popular however, but because the companies or technology themselves had issues.
MR: Our aspiration is to launch one or more play for fun games on the channel in 2006 and we’ll use that as a test bed for technology trials, consumer reaction, viewer reaction and then based on that feedback move forward with additional applications.
GOB: Will the interface itself take people from the channel to the games, or will it be a part of the program guide, where it’s folded in with search functions and VOD ordering on the operator level?
MR: All to be determined. But, clearly the fundamental premise behind the opportunity is to engage subscribers in using their remote to effectively interact with what they’re seeing on the channel – and the best proxy arguably in the western world is what’s going on with BSkyB in terms of their success in that regard.
Britain has a longer history of the gaming culture perhaps but there are applications that exist today and many are very very successful, both from the game developers perspective and BSkyB’s perspective – and viewers and subscribers can’t get enough of it.
As you said, there’s a whole history as to why various forms of iTV didn’t take off, but I haven’t heard from distributors saying that they don’t believe the time has come to start the process of finding what those relevant, sticky iTV programs might be – and a channel that’s all about gaming is a natural home for that.
GOB: So tell me about GOLTV.
MR: GOLTV partnered with GOLTV USA. It’s the only 24/7 soccer channel in the United States, launched three years ago or so. It’s one of the fastest emerging new networks in the U.S. GOLTV Canada features the best of Gol U.S. along with Canadian produced or acquired programming.
The service has been tremendously well-received by everyone in the marketplace because it’s the only destination in Canada for non-stop, live, Italian, Spanish, Brazilian, first league soccer – some of the best soccer in the world – shown all the time on the network, along with other Latin American countries like Mexico and Uruguay.
GOB: Say I’m a distributor and I say to you there’s lots of soccer on and what’s the difference between you and Fox Sports World? Why do I need GOLTV?
MR: It’s apples and oranges. Fox Sports World is EPL soccer (English Premier League) and GOLTV – if you want to see the top 10 best soccer players in the world, you’re going to see them on teams like Real Madrid, or Juventus, or AC Milan and as I understand it, Fox Sports World shows very little, if any of those matches.
GOB: And they have rugby and Australian Rules Football and other things – not just soccer.
MR: In fact, that hasn’t been the reaction. (The distributors) have opened their arms. They have a very good sense of their marketplace and the channel speaks to sports fans and soccer fans and to the multi-lingual, multicultural nature of our country and a lot of people grew up living the experiences of their local soccer club in Italy, Spain or Brazil for example.
So, it’s a perfect service for all those reasons.
GOB: And where is it available now?
MR: We launched it with Rogers on November 1st and we have agreements in principle with other major operators.
I think it’s fair to say that everybody has confirmed the appeal of the channel through their subscriber base and our expectations are that it will be fully distributed in 2006.
We’re offering the service in English with Spanish SAP. Your choice. In markets like Montreal, the distributors have identified the growth of Spanish-speaking subscribers as being a big enough group to try and address in terms of their programming needs, so there is potential for a service like Gol in Montreal to not only fill the void of 24/7 soccer in English, but also for Spanish-speaking customers.
GOB: If there’s ever been a non-sexy channel name, the World Fishing Network is it. I don’t mean to insult you, but…
MR: You don’t find it sexy? (laughter) You’ve not seen our programming.
GOB: That's true. Tell me about the launch of WFN and where it’s headed.
MR: It launched December 2nd initially with Rogers so it’s available to all of Rogers’ basic digital subscribers.
When we went out and researched formats of sports genres that were underserved and started to look at what Canadians do… we discovered that more people fish than play golf and tennis combined. So, you have north of four-and-a-half million Canadians who every year, angle.
Secondly, we made a trip up to (the) Bass Pro (store) up at Vaughan Mills (shopping centre) on a Tuesday at 2 p.m. in the middle of summer and realized we couldn’t get a parking spot. We wandered in and saw that the store was filled with families, single guys, grandfathers, grandsons, guys in expensive suits, you name it.
It’s a six-billion-dollar a year industry (in Canada) in terms of everything from $50,000 boats and $5 lures.
Finally, we looked at when you say fishing, you may have your own view about what that sport means but it’s as broad a genre as kids television or women’s television because you go from everything from fly fishing on the Restigouche (NB), which is a whole world unto itself, to competitive sportfishing in the Gulf of Mexico. And, you have personalities in Canada, like Bob Izumi, who is associated with our network, and who is a rock and roll star in the world of fishing in this country…
The notion of having television proigramming in the world of fishing is not a new concept. The challenge is that you can never find it when you want to.
GOB: Something like 9:30 a.m. Sunday or something.
MR: And, you could never find a destination that covers the breadth of the sport. So, we came to the view that if you could build a schedule with quality there would be sufficient demand for a channel for the 4.5 million-plus Canadians who love the sport.
We actually have a wider potential audience and subscriber base than other sports channels that focus on other niche verticals.
I never underestimate what you’ll find when you scratch beneath the surface of a format. When people say 15 years ago, who wants to watch a channel about golf – I can’t think of a less sexy channel than that…
We’re actively engaged in conversations in the U.S. We’ve been approached to see if we can find a home for this channel or at least some portions of the channel in the U.S. marketplace. In the U.S., there’s also no 24/7 home for this format so we may well find demand for the content and the channel.
One other thing is that you may be surprised to find that an increasing number of the mainstream fishing shows are being shot in HD. That's not surprising when you think of HD and being on the water and all the beauty that entails. We have now over 100 hours of content in HD for the channel and more is being produced. So, we have had discussions about launching all or some portion of the schedule in HD.