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Moviewatch moves few

Watching Ben Stiller squirm through Robert De Niro's polygraph test in the trailer for Meet the Parents is funny the first couple of times. Then the gag gets old, and that's precisely what sank Movietime, a movie-trailer channel that was remade into E! Entertainment Television. Now the concept is being resurrected in the form of Moviewatch, a cable network being developed by the folks from Hubbard Broadcasting, a family-owned television group in St. Paul, Minn.

Executives throughout the cable industry are giving Moviewatch a thumbs down.

"There's a question of validity," said an executive from one of the top five MSOs. "It's been tried before."

The Popcorn Channel was one previous incarnation of a network that ran movie trailers and theater listings, typically referred to as a "barker" channel. Popcorn was launched in late 1995 and backed by a triad of companies including The New York Times. It peaked at 3 million subscribers and folded after about a year.

Movietime also lasted about a year before Lee Masters, now the head of Liberty Digital, was brought in to save the channel.

"It was like MTV but with movie trailers," said Masters. "It wasn't broad enough. The first time you see a trailer, it's fabulous. The second time, it's OK. The third time, not that exciting."

Movietime reached 8 million subscribers; 70% of them only part-time, before the overhaul to E! in 1990. The driving assumption behind Movietime was that pay-per-view movie channels and interactivity would proliferate rapidly and people would seek out a guide channel.

"The idea was, as interactivity increased, you could click on a trailer and get local theaters," said Larry Gerbrandt, senior vice president of Paul Kagan Associates Inc. "The studios liked it. It was free promotion..But it was hard for operators to get excited about a channel they perceived as being mostly promotions. The cable operators have said, why should we promote movies in theaters? That doesn't help us."

The Hubbards are also counting on the proliferation of pay-per-view movie channels, the difference being that proliferation is actually happening rather than being predicted as it was in the early' 90s. MSOs are stuffing digital tiers with PPV channels for the additional incremental revenue, and buy-rates are climbing. But a huge chunk of those PPV channels are controlled by InDemand, a programming originator and distributor owned by four MSOs that control more than half of all cable homes: Cox Communications, Time Warner, Comcast and AT&T. And InDemand already offers three barker channels customized for whatever combination of its 35 PPV channels an MSO carries.

Sources close to Moviewatch say the network will be more than movie trailers-think Bravo's Profiles or Inside the Actor's Studio. And the Hubbards have earmarked $50 million a year for programming, putting it in the neighborhood of History Channel, Speedvision and Home & Garden Television, according to estimates from Paul Kagan Associates.

One of the major things Moviewatch has going for it could also work against it: 10 million DirecTV subscribers. The channel will launch on DirecTV, via a deal by which the Hubbards retained space for two channels when the company sold its share of USSB to DirecTV last year. If not for that, DirecTV would never carry the channel, said one industry executive.

"It has sprung from DirecTV and the satellite guys," said another industry executive. "Right then and there, the cable guys are going to hate it."

And forget about getting MSOs to pay for the channel, he said. "So they put it on DirecTV and get 10 million homes. That's barely enough to be monitored by Nielsen. It's not going to get much, if any, revenue from affiliate fees or ad revenues. The whole model will never get off the ground."