Nat Geo Net Buys Way Into Latin America

National Geographic Channel hit a growth spurt this month, unveiling plans to expand into Latin America and nailing down its first global sponsorship deal.

The programmer is sinking its teeth into Latin America's pay TV market with plans to launch a Brazilian channel in November. A channel for Spanish-speaking Latin America, which has far more cable and satellite subscribers, is set for early next year.

The move is a significant, albeit belated, one for the three-year-old programmer. With the Brazilian feed, NGC will have distribution on every continent pending a U.S. launch early next year.

The channel had long eyed Latin America and Brazil as an entry point. Soon after NGC's 1997 launch, executives said they were evaluating potential partners there.

For entrée, NGC acquired Brazilian general-entertainment cable and satellite channel Superstation for an undisclosed sum, with plans to convert it into NGC.

NGC will pick up Superstation distribution in about 2 million homes thanks to the channel's existing carriage deals with MSO Globo Cabo S.A.'s "NET" programming franchise and direct-to-home platform Sky Brazil.

Gaining distribution by acquiring an existing channel isn't new in Latin America. Telemundo recently bought news network TeleNoticias (now Telemundo Internacional). And about two years ago, Sony Pictures Entertainment acquired TeleUno, which it converted into AXN.

NGC CEO David Haslingden said the acquisition route enables the network to have carriage agreements in hand when it approaches new operators, and it provides an experienced management team. Superstation owner Orlando Vallone is joining the company as managing director of Brazil.

Haslingden added that NGC has "already been in detailed discussions with operators" in Spanish-speaking Latin America, but he wouldn't provide additional details.

Latin America has definitely been open to documentary programming. Discovery Communications Inc. boasts six channels in the region, including two joint ventures with BBC Worldwide. Flagship network Discovery Channel, launched in 1994, is one of the most widely distributed networks in Latin America, with 13 million subscribers.

Haslingden said NGC would get a significant hand from News Corp.'s advertising and affiliate-sales teams, which currently work with Fox-branded networks in Latin America.

Fox Entertainment Group, NBC and National Geographic Television, are partners in NGC's international operations. The channel currently reaches 80 million homes, but only as a programming block in some.

Haslingden said NGC is still working to develop French and German channels, but those efforts are on a slower track because of significant costs.

Also, NGC signed an pact with Toyota Motor Corp. that will see the automaker become the exclusive global sponsor of its Adventure Starts Here series beginning in October. The deal "will extend to [National Geographic's] other entities, including the Web site and local marketing initiatives," NGC said.