ECOlogy cable channel to be based in Howard Co.

February 10, 1994|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Sun Staff Writer

A new cable television channel offering environmental news and entertainment has selected Howard County for its national headquarters.

Eric McLamb, an Ellicott City resident who is founder and chief executive officer of the ECOlogy Channel, said he and his partners chose Howard over Atlanta and other areas because of its proximity to Washington and the many environmental organizations and regulatory agencies there.

Executives of the channel plan to air their first broadcast in December. But they face an uphill climb to get big cable system operators such as Comcast and TCI to offer their 24-hour programming to subscribers, industry analysts say.

"It's a real difficult sell right now for start-up cable companies," said Rich Brown, an assistant editor and reporter in the New York bureau of Broadcasting and Cable magazine.

"Channel capacity is very limited right now," he said. "The operators are filling up channel space with programs produced by big broadcasting companies. There is no guarantee of survival for any of these start-ups."

Competition for cable channel space from broadcasting companies was spurred in part by the federal Cable Act of 1992. It requires cable companies to pay broadcast companies a re-transmission fees to air their programs.

Some large broadcast networks, though, have struck deals with cable operators to air their own niche-market programs, such as the new Home & Garden Network, in lieu of the transmission payments, said Mr. Brown.

These alliances, coupled with growing competition from several new home shopping networks -- which offer cable operators a slice of revenues -- make starting very rough for independents such as the ECOlogy Channel, said Mr. Brown.

Partners in the venture, though, are upbeat about prospects for landing clients.

John H. Hoagland, vice chairman of the company and a former executive with the Christian Science Monitor, said he believes that channel space will begin to open up in 1995 as large cable system operators shed high debt and invest in new technologies.

"There is also a growing national interest in the environment," he said

Mr. McLamb said he believes that the channel's programming will be marketable because it will be "very entertainment driven."

"We will provide programming that has a balanced view of environmental issues and events. Our main goal will be to show how people not only affect the environment but [how they] are connected to it," said Mr. McLamb, 38, a former marketing and public relations executive with the Discovery Channel and the Turner Broadcasting System.

"There are a lot of good documentaries and programs out there about the environment. But the thing I think a lot of them miss is showing how people are connected to the environment while entertaining them."

The ECOlogy Channel has not signed any multiple cable system operators, but Mr. McLamb said the company has pitched its concept to several of the nation's largest cable companies and has drawn interest.

ECOlogy Channel executives plan a major push beginning March 15, offering those that sign 50 percent of subscriber fees.

"We will need to have some deals signed by late summer or early fall," said Mr. Hoagland.

While Mr. Hoagland insists that the channel will have as many as 10.5 million subscribers by 1999, some cable industry experts are skeptical, given the large number of new cable offerings flooding the market -- about 60 annually by Broadcasting and Cable's count

Some of the 11 programs the company says it has already committed to produce or purchase include:

* The Good Green Earth: a series on organic gardening and recycling that formerly aired on the Monitor Channel.

* ECO Kids: an ecology-oriented animation and live action weekend program geared to children.

* ECO Newsmaker: interviews with scientists, celebrities and politicians involved with current environment-related news events.

Mr. McLamb projects that the ECOlogy Channel company will produce 20 percent of its own programming during the first year of operation and 50 percent by its fifth year.

The company is looking at Howard County sites for its production and broadcast facility.

For now, business is handled out of Mr. McLamb's home and out of the Boston offices of J-Net Broadcasters Inc, a 2-year-old media consulting and television program production company. J-Net, headed by Mr. Hoagland, owns a 20 percent share in the ECOlogy Channel and will oversee program production and acquisition.

ECOlogy Channel partners said they expect the company to break even within three years.

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