Cuban Teams With Seacrest, AEG To Relaunch HDNet as ‘ESPN For Pop Culture’

Struggling for leverage with cable distributors as the operator of an independent network, Mark Cuban may have found a way forward for one of the pioneer channels broadcast in HD: teaming with Ryan Seacrest Media, Creative Artists Agency and AEG to re-launch HDNet this summer as AXS TV, a 24/7 cable network focused on pop culture and live events.
Beginning as early as June, AXS (pronounced “access”) plans to deliver behind-the-scenes coverage of live concerts and music festivals, red carpet premieres, award shows and celebrity parties, as well as in-depth interviews with entertainers and various glitterati.
“This isn’t another E!,” Cuban told paidContent via e-mail, describing the re-christened channel. “Think of it more as ESPN (NYSE: DIS) for music and pop culture. We will work towards being live all the time. We will have a live studio show that will go remote to actual events rather than being driven by celebrity rumor packages … If you see a tweet for breaking pop culture news, we want you to be able to turn on AXS and know we will have someone on site to cover it and a studio to discuss it.”
In the current cable and satellite realm, larger media conglomerates like, say, Fox (NSDQ: NWS) Networks can use the reach of popular channels like FX to leverage better carriage for more obscure networks like Fuel. As a result, channels like HDNet have often been squeezed into the less popular programming tiers and channel numbers of the various cable and satellite carriers — or worse, pushed off altogether.
But partners like AEG, which has the ability to offer AXS subscribers early access to perks like concert tickets, vastly improve the channel’s negotiating position. “These are things we could never do before,” Cuban pointed out.
Right away, AXS TV will get enhanced carriage from Dish Network (NSDQ: DISH), which will take its standard-definition feed and put it on its top-tier America’s Top 120 programming package. Dish will also make AXS-branded live events available on VOD channels and has a ticketing. AXS TV’s reach will expand from its current level of 27 million to 35 million cable and satellite subscribers as a result of these moves. Dish Network also extended its carriage contract for the channel for seven years.
At least at the beginning, AXS TV will remain confined to the HD tiers of operators including Comcast (NSDQ: CMCSA) and DirecTV (NYSE: DTV), but Cuban said he discussed the re-brand with these other carriers and “they love the idea.” Of course, loving and paying are often two different things.
Seacrest, AEG and CAA are giving up their own idea for a new network, opting instead to rebuild one that already has some carriage agreeements. As for how the various partners fit in, AEG will provide the production wherewithal for the new venture, with much of that coming from operations situated in the LA Live entertainment complex in Downtown Los Angeles. AEG will also leverage its connections in the live entertainment world to set up red carpet events, performer interviews and back-stage access.
Seacrest, who also owns equity in the re-branded venture, doesn’t plan to be on the channel but will provide his reach through Ryan Seacrest Media, including his various relationships. He’ll produce some programming through Ryan Seacrest Productions.
Hollywood talent agency CAA, which represents Seacrest, is promising access to its extensive industry relationships, as well as its advisory services in the areas of corporate development, marketing, technology, brand integration and sponsorship.
The re-brand won’t entirely wipe away all remnants of HDNet’s current form – the sports-themed HDNet Fights and Inside MMA, the channel’s Sunday concert series and the news show Dan Rather Reports will continue on AXS TV but with more live elements. HDNet Movies, meanwhile, will retain its current focus on high-definition films.
Cuban said the re-branding would include some cross-platform elements, but their form would not be “typical,” he added, and they will be announced later. One effort was included with the news: the AXS Headliner Club, an online audition site with Dish, is planned for an August launch.