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Participant Media — founded by Jeff Skoll to invest in such movies as The Help and Lincoln, as well as documentaries, including An Inconvenient Truth, that inspire social action — is launching a cable TV channel in summer 2013 aimed at the Millennial Generation, according to an announcement Monday by Skoll and CEO Jim Berk.
Evan Shapiro, who joined Participant in May after being president of IFC and Sundance Channel, will lead the network.
As a base for launch, Participant Media has purchased The Documentary Channel and has an agreement to acquire the distribution assets of Halogen TV from The Inspiration Networks. Shapiro said that the coverage of the two channels is complementary, with little overlap, so when they are combined, the new channel will reach about 40 million homes, giving the new channel about 35 percent coverage in U.S. TV homes to start. “We want to grow it from there,” said Shapiro.
Documentary Channel primarily is available on DirecTV and the Dish Network, giving it a potential reach of 25 million TV homes.
Halogen has standard- and high-definition channels. It is on AT&T U-Verse, which puts it in about 4 million homes, and has a VOD platform that reaches about 7 million homes. Shapiro said it is on other systems as well, including some Time Warner Cable systems.
“The goal of Participant is to tell stories that serve as catalysts for social change,” said Skoll, who made his estimated fortune of more than $3 billion as a founder of eBay. “With our television channel, we can bring those stories into the homes of our viewers every day.”
Shapiro said they want to offer “entertainment that will inspire social change.”
The announcement promises that the channel will offer thought-provoking and entertaining programming catering to those 18 to 34 years old.
Among those who will help create and acquire those shows are producer Brian Graden, formerly head of MTV; The Jim Henson Co.’s Brian Henson; award-winning documentarian Davis Guggenheim; columnist and blogger Meghan McCain; humorist and filmmaker Morgan Spurlock; journalist and documentary filmmaker Gotham Chopra; filmmaker and screenwriter Mary Harron; writer-director Timothy Scott Bogart; and Cineflix Media, an international TV producer and distributor in which Participant Media has a controlling equity interest.
“The creation of this network is a natural evolution for Participant,” added Berk. “After nearly a decade of telling compelling, entertaining stories on the big screen, a television channel allows us to build upon our existing film, digital and social-action resources to create a continuing conversation with an audience that is interested in staying connected and engaged with the world around them.”
Said Shapiro: “Our content will be specifically designed for the viewers that the pay TV ecosystem is most at risk of losing. We all know that Millennials are changing how media is consumed. However, they also have the strong desire and inimitable capacity to help change the world. Our research shows that there is a white space in the television landscape, and we believe that a destination for ‘the next greatest generation’ will be a win for our affiliate partners, advertisers and the creative community.”
Shapiro added that they have held discussions with cable operators, and what they heard was that they wanted. “The reason we chose this specific audience,” said Shapiro, “is we feel this audience wants to help change the world. … This is also the audience cable operators are most at risk of losing. We’re devising a business and programming model that is meant to cooperate with the cable systems to attract more of this demographic.”
Berk said that Participant also has developed a database of people in this demographic from earlier projects like Food Inc. “There’s over half a million we talk to around Facebook,” said Berk. “We’ve got over 2.5 million we talk to on a regular basis for our digital businesses and our communities. We realized this audience is responsive to our content.”
Berk said they did extensive reach, including surveying more than 4,000 viewers in that demographic over the past summer. “It reinforced there is a real opportunity for us to do what we do in film on television,” he said.
Shapiro declined to say whether they have revised the carriage agreements with the systems currently carrying the two channels that will combine into one. Berk said they would not have gotten this far if they were not sure it would be acceptable to the system operators.
“The idea is we have something different than other channels,” said Berk. “We’ve got the funding. We can operate in a private environment. We’re not tied to quarterly earnings. We are gong to provide funding well beyond the advertising and subscriber base (revenue), investing in this channel and programming in order to grow it.”
Shapiro said they will announce the new name for the channel in March.
Movies in which Participant has invested also include An Inconvenient Truth, Good Night, and Good Luck, Waiting for Superman, Contagion, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and the about-to-open Promised Land.
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