Indie News Channels Look to Break Into Cable

Can deep pockets + niche ideologies = success?

As cable operators angrily watch margins shrink and subscriber fees rise, independent networks are trying to wedge themselves into the gap—and nowhere is the field of hopefuls more crowded than in cable news.

A news channel isn’t a cheap or easy proposition even under the best of circumstances, but three outlets seeking distribution have the dual advantage of underrepresented ideologies and very deep pockets.

First, there’s CCTV, an American version of China’s national news network, backed by the Chinese government. It’s controversial—the Chinese Communist Party is routinely criticized for censorship. Still, the English-language net has managed to attract a surprising number of decorated Western reporters. Jim Laurie, a senior consultant at CCTV, has worked for decades in broadcast news, having won a Peabody Award and two Emmys.

Laurie defends the network’s integrity but concedes that the Chinese government “may choose not to do a story” when keeping silent is in their interest.

“My perception has been that when the Chinese do a story, they do it with a great deal of integrity,” Laurie said. As for the selective coverage, he said, “that’s not different from any other news organization.”

Brands are already on board. Procter & Gamble, Colgate and L’Oréal advertise on some version of CCTV. Ad revenue covers some 70 percent of the budget for the Central People’s Government’s 22 channels.

CCTV isn’t the only government-backed player seeking pickup. Al Jazeera America, funded by the nation of Qatar, hopes to benefit from the carriage agreements of Current TV, which it recently acquired. (Al Jazeera didn’t provide an interview by press time.)

Then, there’s the maverick: former Fox News host Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze, a linear version of his wildly popular website (which boasts some 300,000 paying subscribers). The staff of 180 is “fully financed by Glenn and our affiliate businesses,” said Betsy Morgan, president of TheBlaze and another journo with a serious CV—she is former CEO of The Huffington Post.

TheBlaze is profitable—$40 million in year one of the online video portal. Dish, whose period of exclusivity with the network is probably ending soon, went out of its way to comment for this story. “We had customers sign up quickly,” said Dave Shull, svp, programming. “In fact, subscriptions attributable to TheBlaze outpaced our projections by 80 percent.”

That’s good because TheBlaze can’t rely on a corporate parent to strong-arm a distributor into carrying it. “We will live and die based on the strength and appeal of our programming,” said Morgan. Distribs hungry for popular content hope others follow suit.