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Hubbards MovieWatch Sets Premiere

Hubbard Media Group last week announced official plans to launch its multimedia MovieWatch service to direct-broadcast satellite and cable subscribers in the fourth quarter of next year.

In addition to a 24-hour television network, the company plans to introduce a companion Web site, and is investigating the possibility of adding-interactive television applications. MovieWatch is expected to launch next year with more than 10 million DirecTV Inc. subscribers.

A division of Hubbard Broadcasting Inc., Hubbard Media Group was created late last year, several months after the company's U.S. Satellite Broadcasting assets were sold to DirecTV. As part of the sale agreement, DirecTV agreed to consider future Hubbard programming ventures.

A DirecTV spokesman last week said he could not comment on whether the DBS provider will carry MovieWatch, because no deal had been signed.

"We are interested in anything out there that would be helpful to our business, especially to our pay-per-view or premium-movie business," DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer said. "We look forward to any new ideas and programming that come out of the Hubbard Media Group."

Asked if he would seek commitments for a minimum number of subscribers before going ahead with a launch, Hubbard Media chairman Stanley E. Hubbard said no.

"This network will launch," he insisted.

MovieWatch has not yet signed any cable carriage deals, and Hubbard said it's too early to discuss the potential business relationship between the network and operators-that is, how much operators might pay per subscriber or whether Hubbard Media would offer launch fees.

But Hubbard said the channel's focus on films in all windows of distribution-including theatrical release, home video, pay-per-view and premium cable-would ultimately help operators to sell more movie products.

The new channel would help to draw new premium customers and retain existing ones, Hubbard claimed.

Some industry observers were skeptical about the chances for a channel devoted to movie-themed information and entertainment. They cited the failure of Movietime, which was ultimately remade into E! Entertainment Television, and The Popcorn Channel, which shut down in late 1996 after about a year in service and with less than 2 million subscribers.

An executive at one premium-movie network, for example, said it's irrelevant whether such a channel would help push premium, PPV and video-on-demand services if operators refuse to carry it.

But a network executive who was involved in one of the earlier promotional movie channels said he believes there could be operator demand for a channel like MovieWatch, especially as digital-cable penetration increases.

MovieWatch executives were quick to dismiss reported characterizations of the new network as nothing more than a glorified barker channel.

"I didn't come to this network to preside over a barker channel," said MovieWatch president of television Rod Perth, whose cable-network experience includes four years as president of USA Networks Entertainment, and a more recent stint as president of Jim Henson Television.

Perth said MovieWatch's original programming budget would be comparable to those of established major basic-cable networks.

"We are significantly resourced in terms of funding," Perth said. "I would not have been involved otherwise."

It's too early to be specific about the programs MovieWatch might introduce, Perth said. He intends to "establish a clear voice for the network," he said, so it can become a "bookmark for those who love movies."

The network will have a distinctive personality, Perth added. While its primary mission would be to help viewers make decisions about the movies available to them, "a high degree of fun" is also an aim.

"We plan to create a channel with a certain degree of attitude," Perth said.

MovieWatch plans to distinguish itself from E! by sticking to its subject.

"E!-which I respect tremendously-began as a movie channel and then broadened itself considerably," Perth said. "We have every intention of being all about movies, all the time."

The companion MovieWatch Web site will offer information by area code on movies in local theaters, as well as data on what's new on Home Box Office and at the local Blockbuster Video store, Perth noted.

Ideas & Solutions Inc. president Glen Friedman said Hubbard Media's former DBS ties shouldn't keep MovieWatch from gaining cable carriage, as long as the channel is attractive to operators and their customers.