Coming Up Next: A Trio on Steroids

Reality-TV shows like American Idol still dominate the airwaves and draw big audiences. Mainstream culture has embraced gay-oriented themes and characters, from Will & Grace to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. And fans are fanatic about college sports.

Those are some of the reasons why right out of the box, startups Fox Reality Channel, Logo and ESPNU have a lot going for them, in terms of content and potential popularity.

“[Fox Reality] will be our most successful launch of a channel ever, probably since FX and Fox News Channel,” predicts Lindsay Gardner, executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing for the Fox Cable Networks Group.

The fledgling networks are being launched by a triumvirate of the country’s most powerful media conglomerates: News Corp., The Walt Disney Co. and Viacom Inc.’s MTV Networks. They are the ideal parents for securing distribution. That triplet of programming fiefdoms can use retransmission consent, or can package new services with popular established ones as leverage to secure rollouts.

Fox Reality looks like the frontrunner — not only among other reality-TV networks but cable startups in general — in terms of stacking up subscribers for its second-quarter entrance. Fox Reality has deals that guarantee it will be in at least 17 million homes when it launches, making it one of the biggest cable launches ever.

Gardner concedes that Fox Cable uses all the assets News Corp. has at its disposal to drive distribution for networks like Fox Reality.

“We play the hand we’re dealt, but we are sober enough and experienced enough that we know that long-term success depends on the content on the screen,” Gardner says.

The gay- and lesbian-focused Logo has hit a bit of a speed bump with its launch. The service, originally set to roll out in February, recently pushed its debut back to June 30. MTVN officials say the delay will give them time to put together a robust lineup of original and acquired programming, and to put the service in 10 million homes right from the start.

Least is known about the debut that’s coming soonest. ESPN’s latest spinoff, the college-sports network ESPNU, is slated to debut March 4 with basketball, baseball and football programming. ESPN largely has been mum about what kind of distribution the new network will have when it bows.

In some cases, ESPNU will get launched as part of the long-term renewals ESPN did last year with many of the major MSOs. To that end, ESPN confirmed an ESPNU rollout on Adelphia Communications Corp. as part of an overall extension.

In other instances, ESPN will have to hammer out separate carriage deals for ESPNU, although it may wind up packaging it with other new offerings such as ESPN2’s HDTV feed.