Documentary Net Finds a Digital Launchpad

The Documentary Channel will launch next January on the digital platform OlympuSAT Inc., which also took an equity stake in the start-up network, officials said last week.

OlympuSAT, which has created a digital suite consisting of several independent programming services, would not disclose the size of its stake in the channel. But it is a minority share, officials said.

The Documentary Channel, which will air unedited, independent documentaries of all lengths and genres, expects to close on all of its financing within the next 60 days, according to president Tom Neff, himself an award-winning documentary filmmaker.

Doug Hull, OlympuSAT's senior vice president of operations and sales, said the investment in Documentary Channel is his company's first in a network. As OlympuSAT provides efficient and cost-effective distribution to independent networks, taking a stake in the new service was a good strategic move, according to Hull.

"It's no big secret that The Documentary Channel has been bounced around the industry," he said. "And it is a quality content provider that is truly independent."

The OlympuSAT I platform, which will launch The Documentary Channel, offers two packages of networks: the Family Pak and the Hispanic Pak.

The digital platform currently distributes GoodLife TV Network, which targets baby boomers; FamilyNet, dedicated to family and values-based programming; Canal Sur, the Latin American news service; Puma TV, offering Latin American music, film, dance and fashion; Cine Latino, the commercial-free Mexican movie channel; TV Chile, which offers news, telenovelas and sports from Chile; Latin TV, which telecasts Latin Music videos; and B Mania, which showcases the best in "B"-movies.

OlympuSAT packages and digitally distributes independent programming services. It also provides supplemental marketing and affiliate-relations support.

"They're an ideal partner because they give us marketing and satellite time and affiliate sales," Neff said. "Our primary purpose is the programming."

OlympuSAT is reportedly close to a carriage deal for The Documentary Channel with one top-5 cable operator and is also in talks with two others. Deals with two overbuilders are reportedly also being finalized.

The founders of The Documentary Channel first unveiled their plans roughly two years ago. They set a mid-1999 launch date and sought to raise $30 million.

Since that time, the start-up has been on the hunt for financing and has created partnerships with a number of documentary film organizations, such as the archives of the National Film Board of Canada, Film Australia, The British Film Office and Turner Broadcasting System Inc.

"It's difficult to form a channel," Neff said. "Putting a lot of these pieces together has taken a lot of time."

The Documentary Channel's programming partners will sponsor branded program blocks, with selections from their libraries that will air in primetime.

Turner, for example, has 400 hours of documentaries in its library. As one of the network's programming partners, Turner will gain title sponsorship for a primetime show featuring its films, perhaps called
Turner Broadcasting Presents
, according to Neff.

"Ted Turner is a great supporter of documentaries," Neff said. "And its gotten harder to place them on their own channels. They used to run them on TBS [Superstation]."

The Beverly Hills, Calif.-based network also hopes to encourage the production of documentaries by providing finishing funds and entering into co-productions.

In the next six to eight weeks, the network will also relaunch its Web site, which will be made into a portal for documentary filmmakers and film lovers. The revamped site will stream films, offer information on producing and financing projects and serve as an online store for documentary videos and DVDs.

"We have 7,000 films to sell," Neff said.

The Documentary Channel has also lined up 300 documentary professionals from 45 nations for its advisory council, and help find films to air.

Quest Digital Media LLC's Nashville, Tenn., facility will provide The Documentary Channel with a host of production and broadband services, such as on-air graphics, live Web streaming capabilities and digital archival storage and retrieval.