April 29, 2013

Fore! Back9Network teeing up for potential TV deal

Photo | Steve Laschever
Photo | Steve Laschever
Back9Network's Jennifer Bosworth and Charles Everett tape a video segment at the lifestyle golf network's new Hartford office-studio.

Walk through the lavish American Row offices of Hartford's Back9Network and you quickly get the sense the fledgling lifestyle golf network isn't a typical downtown tenant.

Visitors to the 10th floor of the Phoenix Building, once home to stodgy insurance-office cubicles, are greeted by waterfall signage and a golf grill room bar that fronts as a welcome desk.

There's also a putting green toward the back of the 13,000-square-foot space, and old-style golf lockers tucked into several corners of the boat-shaped building. The entire office also doubles as a TV studio with a dozen shooting locations, allowing a traditional cost center to serve as a potential profit center.

The nearly complete, swank office-studio is among the early accomplishments for Back9Network as it lurches onward toward its stiffest challenge: landing a TV deal.

James Bosworth, CEO of the first-of-its-kind golf lifestyle network, which hoped to launch its TV presence as early as this first quarter, said his company is being "fast tracked," by a major cable provider on a potential deal. The company is also in "advanced" talks with a satellite provider as well. He declined to elaborate.

If things go as planned, Bosworth said, Back9Network hopes to launch its 24/7 cable network by the fourth quarter, or first quarter 2014.

"The holy grail of value at this time is a television distribution deal," Bosworth said. "But it's not just about getting a deal done. It's about getting a distribution deal that makes sense."

Bosworth admits getting a TV contract is the hardest part of launching a multiplatform network. Being a startup with limited resources (they've been able to raise about $15 million so far) doesn't make things any easier, but Bosworth said he is confident the company is headed in the right direction.

In the meantime, Back9Network has made progress building its brand, executive suite and content portfolio, all with hopes of landing a TV deal that will get them in 20 million homes during their initial launch.

The network is meant to be an alternative to the Golf Channel, which caters largely to golf fans. Back9Network isn't interested in broadcasting live golf tournaments. Instead it aims to target the golf consumer by offering TV programming related to travel, fashion and equipment that is attractive to a wider ranging audience.

That includes women, kids, minorities, new golfers as well as the avid fan. Programming will be a mix of original shows including celebrity profiles, reality shows and comedic series centered on and around golf.
All programming will be character driven, Bosworth said, with the goal of making the audience think, laugh or cry.

Much of the company's recent focus has been building its digital presence and audience to showcase its content and raise brand awareness.

In January, the company re-launched its website Back9Network.com, which offers stories, video, and sneak peeks into some of their planned TV shows. They also signed a syndication agreement with USA Today Sports, allowing both parties to share online content and coverage.

That partnership got Back9Network significant exposure during the Masters golf tournament earlier this month. Back9 hired Tiger Woods' niece Cheyenne Woods to write a diary account of her experience at the Masters, which was published in USA Today's print and online editions.

That, along with syndication through online sports social media platform LockerDome, has attracted more than one million viewers to Back9Network content, said Carlos Silva, the company's president.

"We are being smart about getting Back9 out there as a brand," Silva said. "We want Back9 to be a digital destination, a TV channel, a mobile and iPad channel, and be syndicated to all the great platforms that are out there."

To get a TV deal, cable and satellite providers want to see great content and a strong audience following, Silva said, which is what Back9Network is trying to build through its digital platforms.

The larger the audience, the more leverage networks have to negotiate with distributors.
Content, of course, is king in the TV world.
Back9Network will feature a mix of third party and in-house content. They are working with production companies in Los Angeles that are developing 15 shows that touch on the golf world but are also accessible to non golf fans.

The key is for content to attract all demographics and age brackets, Bosworth said, and they aren't necessarily trying to reinvent the wheel.

Some of the content will purposefully mirror the top 15 rated shows on cable, but with a golf twist. Back9Network is working on their own versions of "Pawn Stars," "Duck Dynasty," "Blind Date," and "The Real House Wives."

They also have a licensing agreement to broadcast live on-air the golf radio show "Fairways of Life," hosted by Matt Adams, which will serve as the networks version of the popular "Mike & Mike" show on ESPN.

"We don't obsess over the Golf Channel," Bosworth said. "We do obsess over A&E, History Channel, Food Network, and the Travel Channel. We look at those networks as casting a much wider net. Food network is not all about cooking, just like the Back9Network won't be all about people playing golf."

In-house, Back9Network will produce live and taped shows out of its two Hartford studios. Besides its space in the Phoenix Building, Back9Network is building out a 6,500-square-foot state-of-the-art TV studio on Constitution Plaza, in the former Spris restaurant space.

The space is about 60 percent complete, but won't be finished until a distribution deal is done, Bosworth said.

The state has provided Back9Network a $4 million loan to train staff and buy gear for its production studio, which is expected to retain 10 full-time jobs and create 40 new ones.

Bosworth said they have showcased some of their programming to cable and satellite distributors and the response has been positive.
Back9Network also is building a deep bench.

Silva, for example, is the former president of Universal Sports, which airs Olympic style sporting events and is partially owned by NBC Universal.

Back9Network also brought in Charles Cox as their finance chief. Cox was formerly the director of international finance/business development at ESPN, where he worked on mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures, and channel/product launches.

On the production side, Robert Abbott, another former ESPN expatriate, is executive vice president of production and content development. The four-time sports Emmy winner was co-creator of "E:60," ESPN's first prime-time newsmagazine.

"We haven't just filled seats," Bosworth said. "We've brought in people that are passionate and clear about the vision of Back9Network."

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