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Participant Media to create pro-social cable channel

December 17, 2012|By Meg James
  • Daniel Day-Lewis in 'Lincoln.'
Daniel Day-Lewis in 'Lincoln.' (Twentieth Century Fox )

Participant Media, the film company behind "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Charlie Wilson's War," has acquired two cable channels and plans to combine them to form a new network featuring programming with social themes.

The channel, which does not yet have a name, is expected to launch next summer. It is being designed to target millennials, people under the age of 34, with scripted and unscripted programming that attempts to provide a catalyst for social change. 

"Everybody wants to be inspired to do good works and to become engaged in the world around them -- and that's what this channel is all about," Jeff Skoll, founder and chairman of Participant Media, said Monday in an interview.

The company is jumping into the crowded cable landscape at a challenging time. Pay TV distributors, who are struggling to keep a lid on skyrocketing programming costs, have been wary about adding new channels to their lineups. Participant, a private independent company, also lacks the leverage of a major media enterprise when negotiating with cable operators.

Other high-profile youth-oriented and self-affirming cable ventures, including Al Gore's Current TV and Oprah Winfrey's OWN, have stumbled as they tried to create programming that would stand out in an increasingly fragmented cable universe.

Still, Participant's Skoll and Chief Executive Jim Berk said they believe that their endeavor will have an edge in the market because their eight-year-old firm is not driven by quarterly earnings, and because no other company has marshaled considerable resources to target a group of young adults, prized by advertisers, with "pro-social" messages.

"It is daunting. We don't think it's going to be a slam dunk, but we are going to make a significant investment, and we have good people who are working on this who are committed," said Skoll, who was the first president of EBay. He used his Internet fortune to open the Skoll Foundation and Participant Productions to focus on feature films.

Participant said it acquired two existing channels, the Nashville-based Documentary Channel and Halogen TV from the Inspiration Networks to build the new venture.  Financial details were not disclosed.

At launch, the channel be available in more than 40 million homes, about a third of all households that have TVs. Its reach comes primarily through the distribution provided by the Documentary Channel, which boasted satellite providers DirecTV and Dish Network as early investors with sizable ownership stakes in the channel.

Halogen TV, which is based near Charlotte, N.C., also sought to provide socially inspirational programming. It is available in about 15 million homes, primarily distributed on the Verizon FiOS television system and AT&T's Uverse.

Content for the new channel will be provided by former MTV president Brian Graden, Brian Henson of the Jim Henson Co., director Davis Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth"), blogger Meghan McCain and humorist documentarian Morgan Spurlock.

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