Cable Show 2012: Mark Cuban's Reinvented Cable Channel Will Be All About Live Programming

Mark Cuban Headshot 2011
Maury Phillips/Getty Images for DIRECTV

HDNet becomes AXS in early July in partnership with Ryan Seacrest, AEG and CAA on a network that wants to be to music and pop culture what ESPN is to sports.

BOSTON -- Mark Cuban has sold a company for a billion dollars, won a championship with the NBA's Dallas Mavericks and shown his business acumen on ABC’s Shark Tank, but the cable TV channel he launched in 2001, HDNet, hasn’t grown as he hoped in audience, profits, programming or carriage on cable systems.

“When we started HDNet, the angle was high definition, and it worked great for us at first, but I made one huge mistake,” Cuban said while taking a break in his booth at the NCTA convention Tuesday in Boston. “I thought HD would take longer to develop than it did. What happened was everybody took non-HD shows, up-converted them and called it HD -- and nobody cared. That kind of messed us up. We lost a lot of differentiation.”

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So in early July, Cuban is going to reinvent his network with the new name AXS (pronounced "access") in partnership with the Anschutz Entertainment Group, TV host and entrepreneur Ryan Seacrest and CAA. That is what was announced in January, but now the new version of the channel is actually coming into focus -- and to paraphrase the line from the musical Gypsy, Cuban believes the secret to success is "you’ve gotta have a gimmick."

For AXS, that gimmick is going to be live programming driven by new technology that will add new functions and make fast switching of subjects, cities and visuals quicker than ever before.

“The goal is to be all live all the time,” says Cuban. “We want to be a virtual studio-driven channel that links people to what’s live anywhere in the world. Think of it as a SportsCenter for music and pop culture, and you will see what we want it to be.”

Cuban had come to the annual cable TV convention with little fanfare and no publicity for an unannounced visit. He was checking out technology, saying hello to old friends, talking to some media and meeting with system operators to let those who carry HDNet what he was planning.

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He was also seeking additional carriage now that his channel will not be limited to the HD tiers. AXS will be offered in standard definition as well, which Cuban hopes will allow him to quickly increase the number of homes where it's available from the current 30 percent -- a number that's too low to call it a true national brand, to make a huge investment worthwhile or to attract enough advertisers.

It is all part of an evolution in his thinking that has been part of growing HDNet and the result of seeing that being only in HD placed severe limits on how far it could go.

“I looked at the technological side of it and tried to think, ‘OK, how do you change television?” says Cuban. “We started testing more and more live events. That’s why you saw HDNet start to do a lot of live concerts, start to do of a lot of live events. Anything we could do live, even if it was Dan Rather holding a live roundtable, we wanted to do live because we found the best events with the highest ratings are live.”

It doesn’t always work, admits Cuban. But for many viewers, especially the tech-savvy young adults he wants to attract, it seems to be enough to differentiate the channel and provide an added level of excitement and interest.

It also is something Cuban believes can’t be done in the same way on the Internet, because only television, he says, creates a shared experience. “So how do you create events that are TV-driven but also integrate social media and make everybody watch the same thing?” Cuban asked. “And how do you take that and eventize, so it’s not just ‘here is a camera, and were showing it live,’ but it’s something more?“

He began to experiment on HDNet doing more live concerts, sports and news. “We saw great results,” says Cuban. “Our concerts kicked ass. For a network with 27 million homes, to have a million households tune in, well, that’s not bad.

“So we started to look at how we could use technology to enhance it even more,” he added, “and the more I thought it through, the more I wanted to do live events.”

As a sports team owner, Cuban was familiar with the Anschutz companies, which operate a number of arenas and entertainment venues. He opened talks with them about how they could use the live events, music, sports and more that were taking place at those venues on his channel. They liked his idea for more live TV and added, recalls Cuban, “ 'We’ve got this guy Ryan Seacrest who really likes this idea too. Would you be interested in talking to him and getting CAA involved too?' I said, 'Sure.' ”

That led to the partnership behind AXS, a name that comes from the name of the AEG ticketing agency, whose services will be weaved into the mix of live programming as a way to sell tickets. They even will use AXS to give tickets away in promotions to help generate interest without spending a lot of money on traditional marketing.

The main studio will also be part of AEG’s L.A. Live, adjacent to Staples Center where the Lakers, Clippers and Kings play, and the theater where the Seacrest can be seen doing the American Idol finals.

But don’t expect to see Seacrest on AXS. What will Seacrest contribute to earn his share of the channel? “A lot of smarts,” says Cuban. “He is someone with a great feel for what is hot, what’s happening in pop culture. So rather than just Mark Cuban saying, 'Oh this is the hot bar in town or the next cool show,’ we’ve got Ryan. He will know who the hot personalities are we need to be talking to. He’s going to be invaluable there.”

CAA also will take a behind-the-scenes role, says Cuban, bringing ideas and helping access top talent. He cites a show CAA suggested that they are considering that is a reality program built around the crew who build the towers for concert events. “They have a lot of interesting characters who Ryan thought were great, who the CAA people thought were great,” enthuses Cuban. “Even though we are going to be live, we still need shows, so they brought us that show.”

What Cuban doesn’t plan on doing is spending lot on traditional marketing. In fact, he blanches at the thought of having to buy advertising. When asked if AXS will launch with a big media campaign, he quickly responds, “Hell no!”

“We will use social media,” adds Cuban. “We will use events. We will use the power of communications and community. If we’re the only one covering fashion, fashion people are going to watch us, right? If we're the only one covering whatever we are covering, people are going to come and watch us. We will be in all the AEG venues. We will be right at Nokia Plaza at L.A. Live. All the people coming through are going to see our studio.”

Cuban also does not plan to use any brand-name talent, though shows will be built around personalities. He plans to find bright younger talents and grow them. And when they become too big for the paycheck he offers, he says he will find other young talent to replace them.

Where he wants to spend is on technology that will do amazing new things with linear TV. For instance, he expects in the not-too-distant future to be able to offer cable systems a product, which they can offer consumers. When the viewer authenticates that they are a subscriber, they will be able to – on certain live shows – use a touch screen to move the scene around so they can see any part of a picture that is being shot in 360 degrees. If they want to see something the camera is not showing, they can move the angle to suit their desires.

He also has a product called Splat, an app viewers can use to hurl virtual things like tomatoes, eggs or even birds at a TV picture and have them land and make sounds. And the video game-like items can be shared with others who have smart TVs and are subscribers, from one to many other homes, each chosen to participate.

Cuban says he has already test-marketed Splat with his kids and they love it and have brought friends over to hurl some tomatoes and eggs at the screen as well.

This won’t happen all at once. Initially he will use some HDNet programming including concerts and Dan Rather doing news, but even Rather will do more live events like a recent roundtable with Hollywood producers and talent. One immediate casualty will be the sexy late-night shows that have been standard fare on the male-oriented HDNet now that it is going upscale toward pop culture.

So Girls Gone Wild will be replaced by girls on the runway and girls in concert, and boys as well. Cuban has rights to a number of music festivals where he has hours of heavy metal bands, among others, that he will run to help fill out the early schedules.

The news will be a little like TMZ but without “throwing anyone under the bus,” Cuban explains. They will have correspondents in eight cities to start -- including New York, L.A., Chicago, Miami, Toronto and Austin -- and stringers in dozens of other places and eventually will blend professional content with user-generated content to show, as an example, different angles of the same concert from all possible views.

“We will be breaking with what has been considered possible right off the bat,” says Cuban. “We’re putting in a lot of money to upgrade a lot of things. We’re taking advantage of new technology in ways other people are not.”

Ross Perot Jr."]