Ryan Seacrest is getting his own TV network after all.
The multi-hyphenate, along with partners AEG and talent agency CAA, have struck a deal with billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban to rebrand his HDNET as AXS TV (pronounced Access) beginning this summer.
The channel’s programming lineup will rely heavily on live lifestyle and live entertainment fare, leveraging the music assets of AEG, a top venue owner and and tour promoter, and the A-list connections and production capabilities of Seacrest. As part of the rebrand, the network will cater to pop culture and entertainment enthusiasts rather than the younger, heavily-male demographic that HDNet historically has targeted. Cuban will continue to lead the channel on behalf of the venture, with Denver, Co.-based Philip Garvin still involved as general manager of network operations.
Though the parties involved will not comment on financial terms of the deal, one source told The Hollywood Reporter that the venture between Cuban and the others is “virtually” a 50-50 partnership. For his part, Seacrest is a stakeholder in the venture, with no plans to contribute as an on-air personality.
The news comes more than a year after THR first reported that Seacrest, CAA and AEG were trying to launch what was then described as a “music, pop culture and lifestyle oriented” cable network. Several months later, the group was in talks to take over VH1 Soul, a little-watched spinoff of MTV Networks' VH1 channel.
According to AEG chief executive Tim Leiweke, who along with Dish chief Joe Clayton and Cuban sat down with THR Wednesday at AEG’s LA Live venue, the Viacom-owned VH1 Soul was one of many distribution platforms considered over the past three years. Also debated was a plan to launch a channel from scratch, an option the team found particularly challenging in today’s increasingly crowded landscape.
Among the benefits of rebranding HDNet as opposed to launching from scratch: the network instantly will be in more than 35 million homes, maintaining its existing distributors, including DirecTV, Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Charter and Dish. But to hear Leiweke tell it, the venture with Cuban got the distributors invested in a way that earlier plans had not.
“I'm not saying that the distribution community was hostile when we'd come walking in the door saying we had an idea, but we were one of many people walking in the door and there was not a lot that captured their attention and made them want to deal with us and think about a partnership that would give us a bigger footprint,” he acknowledged. “This one was different, and the fact that we're sitting here having a conversation about a vision with a distribution partner [in Dish] right off the bat, is why this is unique.”
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As part of the arrangement, Dish announced it would expand its carriage of the rebranded HDNet, making it part of America’s Top 120 programming package, as well as offer a wide selection of AXS-branded video on demand concerts and ticketing opportunities, beginning March 15. By August 1, Dish and the network will launch AXS Headliner Club, an online audition site for musicians looking to perform at an AEG-affiliated venue.
Still, even with distribution, it’s not certain viewers will show up. One needs only look at Oprah Winfrey’s low-rated OWN, a rebrand of Discovery Health, for a cautionary tale. But if Cuban has any fears heading into the venture, he isn’t letting on. “HDNet was profitable coming into this deal and we think we'll be even more profitable and be able to invest even more in the business because of the great partnerships we have and the great leverage that all the access AEG and Ryan bring to the table,” he said in an interview.
Lieweke agreed, adding that many of the assets—from the brick-and-mortar infrastructure to the content—are already in place. “We have about $4 billion worth of assets [including the Staples Center and The 02 in London] we've handed over to Mark. To give him a playground like L.A. Live, it's an existing investment we've already made and one which now we don't have to re-create but he can take advantage of,” he noted, adding: “Same on content: We spend literally over $1 billion a year on content through AEG Live, so our ability to tap into that is huge.”
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CAA, which represents Seacrest, is described as a "partner" in AXS but the talent agency declined to specify whether it is investing money in the venture, saying only that it will access its relationships in sports and entertainment and provide strategic advisory services. The network is vowing to work with all content creators, not just CAA clients.
From a programming perspective the rebranding will mean big changes for the decade-old HDNet network.
“There's a big core of people who think the Internet is going to take over the world and I don't happen to be one of them. I think the future of TV is TV. The Internet will be there and do its thing, but one of the big differentiators is 'live.' If you look at what's happening across the TV spectrum, there's news and there's sports,” Cuban told THR.
Programming plans are still in early stages but the team plans to launch a live news show, loosely described as a SportsCenter equivalent for the pop-culture arena. Cuban suggested this is the kind of fare that can—and in time, will—air several hours a day, every day.
Also included in the rebranded network’s plans are exclusive behind-the-scenes access to live concerts and music festivals, red carpet premieres, award shows, parties, events and in-depth interviews. While scripted and unscripted series fare will likely fill swaths of the schedule at first, Cuban’s plan is to move as much of the schedule as possible to live fare.
Cuban said that some of HDNet’s current programming, including Dan Rather Reports, HDNet Fights, Inside MMA and the network's Sunday concert series, will remain. Inside MMA will likely move its studio to LA Live, while Rather’s show will be tweaked so that it airs live more often. Cuban said he has no plans for Rather to alter his show with more of an entertainment focus: “I'm going to let Dan do his thing,” he said of a show he calls his “guilty pleasure.” HDNet's edgier, more male-focused fare such as Girls Gone Wild programming will go away.
Seacrest’s shingle, Ryan Seacrest Productions, will have a production commitment with the new venture. To be sure, it will not preclude his first-look deal with NBCUniversal, which currently airs his Kardashian unscripted series offerings. What’s more, his conversations about re-upping with NBCUniversal are ongoing, with sources noting that a new deal could include such things as Today appearances, Olympics coverage and Barbara Walters-esque specials as well as an expanded first-look deal for RSP. Ryan Seacrest Media, a holding company separate from RSP, is the investor in AXS.
In an interview with THR last spring, Seacrest insisted whatever deal he and his partners at CAA and AEG struck, it “will not be the Ryan Seacrest channel… it will not be branded with my name or my face. My role would be to hope to provide content for them, but primarily it would be an ownership role.” All involved confirmed Wednesday that Seacrest has no plans to have an on-air role, nor does he envision having another venue for Kardashian fare.
Are you looking forward to what AXS might offer in terms of programming? What would you like to see? Share your thoughts on the Facebook page for our TV blog, The Clicker.
Copyright 2012 The Hollywood Reporter