Dream Merchant

Cable consultant Cathy Rasenberger thought she had heard it all. But this was the worst idea yet: Hooters restaurant chain wanted to start a channel.

A porn channel? Nope. Hooters' execs see the restaurants as more than a place for leering men to buy chicken wings; it's where families go on vacation. "They were thinking family
programming," says Rasenberger, president of media consultancy Rasenberger Media. "I thought someone was pulling my leg." Did she take the fee? "I wouldn't even take the rest of the conversation."

Fortunately, Rasenberger isn't desperate for clients.

In six years, she has carved out a pivotal niche as the go-to person for entrepreneurs seeking to start cable networks. A former affiliate-sales executive for Food Network, Rasenberger chiefly secures carriage on cable and DBS services. But she also hones business plans and connects impassioned startup execs with those looking to invest.

"My biggest job is managing client expectations—and pummeling them down to size," she says. However, "once launched, they can generate a high return for their investors." Past successes include Trio, Newsworld International, and TV One. Clients whose fate remains to be seen include The Anime Network and The Wine Network.

Rasenberger's clients are in treacherous media waters.

Cable is dominated by powerful media giants, like Time Warner, Viacom, and Disney. Cable operators have a small appetite for new programming and don't want to pay much—if any—money. Plus, at least 36 independents are scrambling to secure distribution, money, and attention.

Navigating success takes business savvy. But charting corporate profits are a far cry from her hippie youth, when Rasenberger rejected admission offers from Ivy League colleges and moved to California. The daughter of a Washington, D.C., lawyer steeped in airline regulation, she went to the University of California, Santa Cruz. As a peace activist, she thought she'd thrive there. She didn't.

"It wasn't intellectually stimulating," she says. "I was very much the driven Easterner."

So she dropped out after two months and moved to San Francisco. She got a job as a still photographer for PBS station KQED. After a year, she went to Harvard. But the PBS connection proved useful. It led to summer stints at the McNeil-Lehrer Newshour.

After college, she traveled to London, where a cold call resulted in a job as a researcher at ABC News' bureau during its Peter Jennings era. TV news from the inside wasn't a pretty picture. "That was a very disillusioning year. McNeil-Lehrer
showed both sides of each issue. Network news was all about ratings."

Which is why her next gig was at a game show, as a segment producer for a revival of To Tell the Truth. Subsequent jobs included syndication sales for Warner Bros. TV, international sales for ESPN, and affiliate sales for TV Guide. All provided an education for her future work: creating new network business plans.

"I've looked at 200 networks," Rasenberger says. "Some come to me, they're pure concept. I help develop the business model. But the only thing that raises money is distribution."

Comcast programming chief Matt Bond says she is "good at pulling together a pitch, focusing that pitch, and focusing on what the operator wants."

What are the viable cable niches? "Gay and lesbian space is huge," says Rasenberger, whose onetime client PrideVision never got traction. "It's the last major underserved market." She also cites the personal-improvement sector as largely absent from cable.

"The eye of the needle gets smaller and smaller," she says. "But you can still get through it."