Multicast Nets Extend Reach Into New Niches

Broadcasters are unleashing the next-gen of diginets aimed at capturing viewers with everything from digital content and multiplatform initiatives to crime-busting measures. While far from scrapping classic TV, the core of their pioneering predecessors, the new crop of multicast nets is leveraging programming, multiplatform opportunity and good-doer missions to reach untapped audiences: niche and young viewers.

The earliest entrants in the space—including retro TV channel Me TV and African-American-oriented Bounce TV, a trailblazer in offering original content—have been operating for more than five years now, an important media-business milestone. Newcomers trying to emulate their success are entering the marketplace with strategies designed to tap into underserved, newer audience segments.

“It’s the natural transition for the subchannels as they get more mature,” said Michael Kokernak, whose company, Across Platforms, tracks the industry. “The people looking to the next generation of digital television are starting to figure out ways to put original content or newer content on the platform that is going to appeal to a [broader] demo.”

Broadcasters also simply don’t have many ways other than multicast networks to deliver their over-the-air offerings to more households – an important means for staying viable as audiences increasingly fragment.

“Stations can’t grow outside the DMAs they are in,” Kokernak said. “So the only way these large [station groups] can grow is to own these networks nationwide.”

Sinclair Broadcast Group president and CEO Chris Ripley cited that as one reason behind the group’s greater push into multicasting, which will include the launch of a millennials-focused network early this year.

“Our recent focus has been on expanding our business with new digital multicast networks that leverage our broadcast spectrum and household reach,” Ripley said. Sinclair launched its other multicast network, the sci-fi-oriented Comet, in 2015.

Sinclair’s plans call for populating the space with one of the most experimental networks, programming-wise, on the group’s digital subchannels. The network, called TBD, will target millennials by delivering premium internet content via over-the-air TV. It will feature the breadth of digital-first programming of particular interest to millennials, including web series, short films, comedy, music and viral content.

In December, MGM Television expanded its portfolio of diginets with the launch of Light TV, a multicast network devoted 24/7 to faith-based and family programming. Airing on the digital subchannels owned by Fox O&Os and affiliates, the network will feature the breadth of TV shows and movies deemed “wholesome,” ranging from Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, Highway to Heaven and Heartland to Rocky, Hoosiers and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

“This is the last unclaimed vertical,” said Roma Downey, president of MGM’s LightWorkers Media. “This audience is looking for inspiring and uplifting programming that they can watch in a trusted and safe environment on any platform.”

Steve Schiffman, CEO of the two-year-old Justice Network, believes that while many diginets still grapple with finding their footholds, offering targeted programming packaged as verticals is key to their viability. “We took a page out of cable circa 1990 by focusing on a particular genre of entertainment, which is how cable formed as niche channels,” he said. “To focus on a vertical creates clarity on what we stand for and the programming we are offering.”

Schiffman and his partners, who include America’s Most Wanted’s John Walsh, executed that idea by filling Justice Network’s programming slate with content that focusses on crime and investigations.

They also elevated the concept by leveraging the platform to fulfill the mission it created in keeping with FCC’s call on broadcasters to use digital spectrum to promote public good, making communities safer. Justice Network, through partnerships with law enforcement agencies, on-air PSAs and locally focused informational campaigns, has helped return 61 missing children and nab 77 fugitives to date, Schiffman said.

New players in the field are also aggressively going beyond the linear TV delivery they are built on to garner followings, particularly among young viewers.

Buzzr, FremantleMedia North America’s homage to vintage game shows, in October launched a mobile game app, Buzzr Casino, that has tie-ins to the network’s on-air programming, which includes To Tell the Truth, Let’s Make a Deal and Match Game. In September, the network was the first American diginet to establish a presence on Canadian TV.

“We know the audience playing these games is a younger audience, so it gives us a chance to promote to that audience,” said FremantleMedia’s Ron Garfield, who heads Buzzr.

Looking for ways to nab viewers beyond linear TV is key at a time when a multitude of players are slugging it out for dominance in the space. “We need to be aggressive in our marketing, and really focus on building our brand and building our brand awareness and building the footprint that we currently have,” Garfield said.

Bounce TV is far ahead when it comes to pushing multiplatform delivery. In November, the network launched an SVOD service, Brown Sugar, offering “the biggest collection of the baddest movies” via mobile platforms and desktop.

Yet for emerging diginets, getting distribution remains a pretty big hurdle to achieving ultimate success. The networks that are backed by big broadcast groups—NBC’s Cozi TV and Tribune’s Antenna TV, for instance—have the benefit of getting carriage on their owners’ digital subchannels. The diginets without those ties have a tougher time negotiating distribution.

Another major impediment is that diginets don’t get the same sort of carriage on the country’s two largest satellite providers, Dish and DirecTV, as they do on cable TV due to the platforms’ restricted bandwidth. That means the networks never make it to roughly 35 million of the country’s pay-TV homes. “That’s a third of the industry,” Kokernak said. “You can’t become a major network in the U.S. without Dish or DirecTV.”

Yet diginet executives said they wouldn’t be in the business if they didn’t think it could work—and that they are not giving up on ideas like negotiating their own distribution deals, with satellite as well as cable companies, in the near future.