Tele-Communications Inc., the nation's largest cable television company, has begun airing programming from the ECOLOGY Channel, a year-old Ellicott City company that buys and produces programs about nature and the environment.
The TCI agreement is the first big break for the fledgling company, co-founded by Eric McLamb, an Ellicott City resident and a former marketing executive with the Discovery Channel in Bethesda.
"This really sets the stage for us. We knew we had a concept that would fit an emerging interest," said Mr. McLamb.
The deal with TCI, based in Englewood, Colo., also marks the first strictly environmentally-oriented programming to hit the cable television market in the United States, said industry experts. But other programs may be on the way.
A Los Angeles-based company is attempting to market Planet Central, a similar concept to the ECOLOGY Channel, but has not yet landed a deal with a major cable service provider.
ECOLOGY Channel programs, which have a strong education and entertainment flair, will be shown on tv! Network, a new cable service controlled by Liberty Media, the programming arm of TCI.
tv! Network began airing in select markets in September. It showcases new programs and will be used by TCI to gauge viewer interest in programming that it is considering adding to its menu of services subscribers can order.
Other programming aired on tv! Network includes shows from Cable Health Network, Outdoor Motor Sports and Turner Classics Movies.
Not available in Howard
Ironically, ECOLOGY Channel programming will not be available in the company's home base. The local cable franchise that services Howard County is owned by Comcast Corp., a TCI competitor. Comcast also holds cable franchises in Baltimore and Harford counties.
For now, tv! Network is airing an ECOLOGY Channel program called Special Edition, which features John Palmer, who worked as a news anchor for NBC's Today Show.
Locally, the show is being aired in Annapolis and Baltimore by TCI Cablevision of Annapolis and United Artists of Baltimore.
A TCI affiliate in Washington, D.C., plans to begin airing the program later this month.
Elsewhere in Maryland, the show is also being aired by TCI affiliates in Berlin, Cumberland, Elkton and Ocean City.
Other TCI affiliates that are airing Special Edition hold franchises in the San Francisco Bay area, the Los Angeles area, Chicago and Pittsburgh, said Ms. Brown.
Special Edition is airing for one hour during three time slots weekly. On the East Coast those time slots are Sundays at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., and Tuesdays at 6 p.m.
Viewer interest in the show will be measured through phone polling of subscribers and use of Neilsen ratings, said Sharon Brown, vice-president of marketing and promotions for tv! Network.
Mr. McLamb is confident his programs will be a hit.
He expects the ECOLOGY Channel to move from the tv! Network channel and begin airing on its own channel 24 hours a day by early 1995. "We have 1,000 hours of programming ready to go immediately and another 1,000 identified that we can readily acquire," said Mr. McLamb.
The potential viewing market for the Ecology Channel, were all of TCI's affiliates to pick it up, would be 5.5 million, said Ms. Brown.
The ECOLOGY Channel, which originally went by a different logo -- ECOlogy Channel -- might be offered as what's known in the industry as a "mini-pay" or "a la carte" service. That means cable subscribers would have to request that the channel be added to their service.
"The programs we are going to air will be a lot more than messages about save the planet," said Mr. McLamb.
"It's meaty stuff that people will be interested in and which they can actually use in their daily lives. Our goal has always been to offer programming that people can use," he said.
Examples of programs currently airing include shows about the destruction of the sea turtle population as a result of Nicaraguan peasants taking their eggs, advancements in windmill energy production, and a Nature Conservancy project that saved a critical Arizona wildlife habitat.
"It's very colorful, informative, and offers an interesting perspective," said Sharon Brown, vice-president of marketing and promotions for tv! Network.
Plans for production
The ECOLOGY Channel is not yet producing any of its own shows. Instead, the company has been purchasing programs, such as Home Gardening, from independent producers in the United States and overseas.
Production of the ECOLOGY Channel programming is being handled for now in Boston at J-NET Broadcasters, Inc, a 3-year-old media and broadcasting consulting company, which owns a 20 percent stake in the ECOLOGY Channel.
But the company does want to establish a production facility in Howard County within the next three years, said Mr. McLamb.
Mr. McLamb said the TCI deal came together so quickly that his company did not have time to pull advertising together before the first broadcast last week.
"So our immediate goal now is selling advertising time," he said.