Niche networks get a shot, thanks to Comcast deal

El Rey Network, which launched quietly in December, wouldn’t exist if Comcast hadn’t acquired NBCUniversal.

Case in point: How John Fogelman, a former William Morris Endeavor agent who became C.E.O. of Hollywood media incubator FactoryMade Ventures, approached his friend, director Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids, Sin City, Machete.”).

“‘I just started a network called The Hub, I think we can do it again,’ Rodriguez recalled Fogelman telling him. “’I think we have an opportunity at Comcast, where they are giving away networks to independent owners.’”

As part of its deal to acquire NBC, Comcast promised the F.C.C. that it would add at least 10 independent cable channels to its programming lineup, with at least four of them being owned by minorities.


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Sean Combs launched a music channel called Revolt TV as a result of the deal, while Magic Johnson launched Aspire, targeting African Americans.

Fogelman pitched Rodriguez on an English-language channel for young Hispanics.

“My hand went up, right away, and I was like wondering why,” Rodriguez told reporters Wednesday in the Stanford White Studio of the Chatwal Hotel. “I already had a good movie career, why would I want to get into television like that?”

“I always liked television, but the process seemed a lot more convoluted: possibly you would get a pilot, maybe it would go to series, maybe it would get put on the right night,” Rodriguez added. “You had no control, maybe it would get canceled really quick. It seemed like a lot of maybes, whereas a movie was a sure thing, so I stuck with movies for a long time.”

El Rey is different, most obviously, in that Rodriguez has ownership and total creative control.

“There are no executives. if something needs to be a certain way, we can just make it, give it the authenticity it needs and go for it,” Rodriguez said.

That isn’t entirely true of course. There are executives. Leading the charge is Scott Sassa, the former president of entertainment and syndication for Hearst. El Rey also has Michael Finn, senior V.P. of ad sales, who has been out selling the channel to advertisers.

It is no small task for a brand new channel with an admittedly niche target audience to get itself off the ground, at least at the beginning. That said, the channel locked up two deals: one with General Motors, which will be a launch sponsor throughout 2014, and will have its cars be featured in the channel’s programming; and one with Heineken, which will integrate its products, like Dos Equis beer, into shows.

“We had Robert at a dinner last night with about 20 clients, he is very natural in that atmosphere,” Finn recalled Wednesday. “They kept saying to me that it is really an amazing thing, to have the head of the network be the guy that has the ideas, that is holding the camera, that is integrating my brand into these shows.”

Rodriguez will direct ads and content for the brands that can run during commercial breaks.

The channel expects to become Nielsen-rated in the fourth quarter, Sassa told reporters, which would also help its standing with advertisers, who crave data.

While the channel is unabashedly niche, its first original series is taking a big swing. It is an adaption of From Dusk Till Dawn, the cult movie directed by Rodriguez and written by his friend Quentin Tarantino. Yes, the cast will be driving Chevys, and they will be drinking Dos Equis.

“I thought to start the network off, I would start with something that nobody else could do,” Rodriguez said. “Nobody could get myself and Quentin [Tarantino] to do television for them.”

Rodriguez directed the first eight episodes of the show, and promises appearances from Tarantino on the channel.

Other original shows include “Matador,” about a playboy soccer star, and “The Director’s Chair,” which features Rodriguez interviewing well-known directors. Mark Burnett is also on board to bring Lucha Libre (Mexican wrestling) to the channel.

El Rey is just one of many niche channels in an increasingly splintered and competitive marketplace. The big media companies, like NBCUniversal, 21st Century Fox and Viacom, have the leverage to gain their channels distribution on cable and satellite partners.

Generally speaking those channels have goals of reaching a relatively broad audience. Even “niche” channels like MTV and HGTV have broad appeal.

El Rey, with its English-speaking Hispanic demo, is not broad, even if some of its programming like Dusk Till Dawn is.

Some of the channels most under threat by the emerging cable marketplace are those that try to cater to minorities. Viacom-owned BET seems secure, but there aren’t many others trying or able to reach African Americans, or Latinos, or Asian-Americans. Univision and ABC partnered to launch Fusion, a TV news channel for Latinos and millennials, last year (Univision also handles back-end deals like distribution for El Rey), but the marketplace remains thin.

The Comcast deal provided the opening for channels like El Rey and Aspire to gain at least some traction, even if it means going up against the big guys.

Whether it works remains to be seen.

For Rodriguez, there is a personal element to it.

“I remember one time when I was doing Spy Kids, [Bob and Harvey Weinstein] asked me—and they weren’t being jerks at all—they were just wondering, ‘why are you making the characters Hispanic? It doesn’t make any sense, this is supposed to be for everybody,” Rodriguez recalled. “I said, well, they are American, but it is based on my family, so they are Hispanic, but they will be speaking English, it is going to be for everybody.’ But nobody had done it before, so there was nothing to point to.”

“I said, ‘you don’t have to be British to watch James Bond,’” Rodriguez added. “By making him British it actually makes him more universal, because it makes him more specific. We did it, and Spy Kids was a big hit. Those who were Hispanic, it meant a whole lot to them. People have come up to me for years saying ‘you changed my kids’ whole lives because they see little kids that are Hispanic, that are spies, and they saw your name as the writer and director. You changed their vision of what the future could be.’”



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