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TVN Gets Piece of BET Action

Striking an 11th-hour reprieve, TVN Entertainment Corp. has reached an agreement with Black Entertainment Television to buy the BET Action Pay-Per-View network.

TVN will add the single-channel service to its lineup of digital PPV movie and event services. Action's fare will remain targeted to the urban market, TVN Entertainment Corp. CEO Ian Aaron said.

BET chairman and CEO Robert Johnson will remain a minority owner of the network and continue to market and promote it to operators.

Terms were not disclosed.

The deal, officially announced March 30, came one day before BET was set to pull the plug on the analog PPV service, which had some 9 million subscribers. The channel was not part of Viacom Inc.'s $3 billion acquisition of BET and several other BET-owned cable properties last year.

In January, BET told its affiliates that it would discontinue distribution of the service by March 31 if a buyer was not found. Johnson said several undisclosed companies made inquiries, but TVN provided the best opportunity to continue Action's mission to serve the urban market.

"My goal was to make sure that this type of programming diversity remained available to the cable industry and to cable viewers," Johnson said. "TVN had a greater commitment to the product, had the resources and the strong cable relationships, so it made it more attractive to me than some of the other players."

TVN will combine Action PPV with its own urban- oriented PPV channel to create a niche service it hopes will complement its multichannel near-video-on-demand movie and PPV-event service.

"We're really focused on enhancing the urban category," Aaron said. "We're looking to do some creative things to bring more value to the MSO on the channel."

The analog-only service, which offered action-oriented blockbuster movies, B-movie titles and adult fare, struggled to gain distribution as operators shifted PPV channels to digital. Once the network announced plans to go out of business, affiliates began to jump ship and convert Action's analog slot to a digital format.

But TVN said its already signed affiliates represent 6 million of BET Action's 9 million households.

"Obviously based on the notice they received from BET Action, some affiliates terminated the channel, so we'll be aggressively going back to those affiliates to have them sign new deals," Aaron said.

TVN will give Action PPV the digital distribution it lacked under BET's ownership. The service will appear on TVN's transponder and will also be part of AT&T Broadband's Headend In The Sky digital service.

Aaron said TVN would look to enhance the network's programming over the next three months, although wouldn't detail specific plans. Former In Demand programming executive Michael Klein will oversee Action's programming.

Aaron also said the network would pursue NVOD and VOD studio deals, and attempt to secure distribution rights to marquee PPV event programming for Action, as well as its other PPV channels.

"The goal and the real value is to grow the urban Action channel," he said. "The more we grow the channel, the better the programming and the wider the distribution, the more we increase buy-rates."

TVN is the third company to own the network. BET bought Action PPV from Avalon Communications in 1993 with hopes of eventually developing original, minority-targeted programming for PPV distribution.

"It was frustrating that we couldn't get the level distribution on a single channel PPV product that you need in order to allow you to produce original content, rather than replaying the studio movies or other product that people produce," Johnson said. "It would have been an exciting opportunity if we were able to create original, long-form African-American-targeted movies and dramas, but its very difficult to sell a single-channel PPV product."