A year after Anthem Sports and Entertainment purchased AXS TV from entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, the music channel is looking to hit all the right distribution and content notes under new general manager Frank Tanki.
The Viacom vet assumed operations of AXS TV and HDNet Movies in June, and is positioning AXS TV to fill a void for music programming with shows such as documentaries Coldplay: A Head Full of Dreams, which tells the band’s history through interviews, archival footage and performances from its global Head Full of Dreams tour; and Hype!, profiling the 1990s grunge music scene; and with the return of such brand-defining shows as The Big Interview with Dan Rather. Tanki spoke with senior content producer, programming R. Thomas Umstead. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation.
As an independent network, how do you see AXS TV navigating an evolving television environment? The industry is evolving … it feels like every day, there’s a new dynamic and a new challenge. But we feel that the music category is still very, very valuable to a linear audience. I feel like that white space plus the investments that we’re making in original content has us well-positioned for growth. We’ve had a lot of good conversations on the linear side — we just did a recent renewal with the NCTC [National Cable Television Cooperative] that I think is a sign that we’ve got good things to come. On the digital side, we’re talking to literally every player and we’ve received a lot of great feedback while we continue shoring up our linear distribution.
How does AXS TV differentiate itself in a very crowded TV environment? I feel like there is definitely a white space that is underserved in linear cable TV and in the music space. We like to offer great music storytelling, whether that be through live concerts or more behind the scenes stories. That’s the heart of who we are and where we want to be. I think we’re just going to sharpen it a bit more.
What's your all time favorite show? Too hard to pick one! It’s a combo of The Sopranos, The Walking Dead, SpongeBob SquarePants, The White Shadow and the original Odd Couple.
Favorite podcasts? The Daily and NPR’s Planet Money
Favorite activity while at home during the pandemic? Trying to prove myself as useful as possible to my wife and kids. I'll let you know how that goes.
What books are on your night table? Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen and The Good Son: The Life of Ray Mancini
What shows are on your DVR? I am way behind on The Walking Dead. I’m trying to catch up on Better Call Saul, too. In terms of streaming, I need to follow through on Ozark.
Where does HDNet Movies fit in Anthem’s cable network strategy? It’s got a very loyal core base on linear TV. If you look at movie ratings on some cable networks, they’re higher than they’ve ever been. So we think it plays a really important part of our portfolio. We've got a great lineup of movies from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and we’re going to look at different opportunities to pitch and catch content between the two brands.
AXS TV also televises Impact Wrestling. Do you see the service getting more involved in live sports in the future? The answer is a firm yes. AXS has a long history with pro wrestling and MMA, and I also have a little background with MMA given my days at Spike TV and Bellator, which is still a very important part of ViacomCBS today. I think we’ll have a defined enough home for music that we can put a couple of other things under our roof. Working with Anthem, which owns the Fight Network, we’ll look for ways to be really smart about what we can add to the sports side of our portfolio.
What’s the key for brands that want to survive the current evolution of the television industry? There's a major evolution happening right now. I remember a moment in time earlier in my career where we were debating, is [digital] an evolution or a phase? Now we know it’s an evolution, so we have to embrace that and be more nimble with how and where we distribute our content. We all have to look for new opportunities. For us, linear is still our bread and butter, but I think it all comes down to the communication that we’re having with our audience. It’s more of a direct, two-way street now, and the brands that will succeed are those that are smartly defined and are laser-focused on what the white space is while continuing to have a dialogue with their audience.
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.
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