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Ex-Viacomers Serve Up Tennis Channel

New York— The Tennis Channel last week fired its first serve into operators' laps.

Aiming for digital-cable distribution, the start-up — led by former Home Box Office executive Daivd Meister and backed by an investment group headed by former Viacom Inc. bigwigs — hopes to bounce onto viewers' screens sometime next summer.

The network also lists tennis-industry giant International Management Group as an investor and strategic partner.

Meister and president Steve Bellamy, a tennis promoter, announced the 24-hour network at a press conference here last week, playing off the start of the U.S. Open in Queens. They outlined plans to air live (and taped) tournament play, instructional programming from top instructors such as Nick Bollettieri, Vic Braden and Brad Gilbert, and news and lifestyle programming.

But the managers and former Viacom CEO Frank Biondi, now senior managing director of WaterView Advisors LLC, offered scant specifics about distribution and profitability goals, license fees or rights acquisitions.

Other investors include Biondi's ex-Viacom colleagues Phillippe Daumann, Tom Dooley and Terry Elkes.

Asked about the investment level, Biondi said an initial outlay had been secured and the network was "weeding through a second round to get it on the air." He said digital networks typically need somewhere between $30 million and $100 million to launch, and that Tennis Channel would be "somewhere in that range."

The Tennnis Channel has had preliminary discussions with cable and satellite distributors, but has no carriage commitments at this point, Meister said. He said a second pass would come soon, with more specific business-plan and programming points. He declined to disclose the network's rate card.

Meister also said that the network would "listen to and explore" the possibility of distributors taking an equity stake in The Tennis Channel. "That's been the experience" with respect to start-ups, he observed.

As for programming, Meister said the channel has secured rights deals with tournaments sanctioned by the Association of Tennis Professionals (the men's tour) and the Women's Tennis Association "from Florida to California and from Europe to Asia." He also said there are agreements with World Team Tennis, Seniors Tour and collegiate-level events. He said tournament schedules for the first year would likely be announced within two months.

Library programming also will play a part. IMG senior vice president Barry Frank said his sports-marketing company has some 700 hours of available vintage tennis action.

Network executives also talked up the sport's affluent, well-educated audience and improved TV ratings in recent years. They also cited research which indicates that up to 66 million U.S. households have expressed interest in the game either by playing, watching or reading about it, or by purchasing equipment.

With a significant female skew, the network could also attract packaged-goods and other consumer marketers, in addition to tennis-gear suppliers.

Over the next few months, the question will be whether distributors are willing to return serve with affiliation deals.