Owning a cable TV station provides the opportunity to make money as well as the chance to exercise creative control. When you own a cable channel, you can determine what programs to show and how much to charge to air shows and advertisements. However, you must have the proper licenses as well as quality programming and sufficient revenue. Forming a plan for your station before you launch it can help you provide the proper programs, pricing and profitability for success.
Starting a TV Station
Charlie Stogner decided to start a cable channel more than a decade ago when he learned that federal law required cable operators to set aside channels for independent programming. He and his business partners at the time saw an opportunity to provide local programming that viewers would like and that advertisers would support.
“The underlying purpose of Congress in creating ‘commercial leased access’ was primarily due to operators controlling too much of what was and was not offered in local franchise communities,” said Stogner, who now operates StogMedia, a network of leased access sites. “Often confused with public access, leased access can be as commercial as TV, radio or other print publication and/or online media.”
As president of the Leased Access Programmers Association, Stogner helps entrepreneurs become leased-access programmers. He recommends that if you want to own a channel, you should have the desire to be your own boss, enough initiative to do it and a business plan. You also will need a special insurance policy known as media perils, which the Federal Communications Commission allows cable operators to require as a condition of using leased-access channels. Additional terms and conditions may vary by cable operator.
Calculating the Costs of Starting a Cable Channel
Federal regulations provide a formula for cable operators to use when selling leased-access channels. The formula includes factors like subscriber count, channel count and channel placement.
You would pay higher rates for systems with a greater number of subscribers and to air shows during times when more viewers are available. For example, a half-hour show that airs in prime time (6 p.m. to 12 a.m.) on a small system may cost $25 or less on a cable system with just a few thousand subscribers compared to hundreds of dollars on a site with tens of thousands of subscribers, according to the Leased Access Programmers Association. Similarly, a half-hour program that airs on a small system may cost $5 between midnight and 6 a.m. but $10 between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Programmers could spend more to make similar purchases on channels operated by the cable system, the LAPA notes.
Television Network Programming and Advertising
In order to sell advertisements, you must air programming that attracts enough viewers to have businesses want to offer their wares and services to them, Stogner said. Though he no longer personally airs any programming, his company, StogMedia, of which he is the president and CEO, does have sites in Jackson, Hattiesburg and Meridian, Mississippi that have their own equipment for handling live shows. StogMedia also has a national network of affiliates who manage local channels under agreements that StogMedia exercises with the site operator.
“I’ve long considered leased access one of the best, least-known opportunities since every cable site in the U.S. must provide carriage to basically independent programmers,” Stogner said. “This can be someone wanting to air a half-hour show once a month up to full-time, 24/7.”
Steve Jackson, owner and operator of Jackson Media TV in Alabama, and his wife do a live morning show on his local cable system. They also interview local community leaders on a city TV show and show local high schools sports games that viewers wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. Providing such programming that viewers can’t see anywhere else helps them sell advertising as well. Now a family-owned and operated business consisting of Jackson, his wife and three children, Jackson started his TV station because of a passion that he has for video production.
“In 1989 we lived in a linear world, and there were very few people to instruct in video production. So, I taught myself, mainly through trial and error, using two VHS tape decks. Pressing play, then record, then pause, fast forward, then record, I would make my edits,” Jackson said.
Deciding to follow his dream and do video productions full time was the hardest decision he made in starting his business, Jackson said. They also had to overcome strong opposition to using leased access and had to contact their local representative to get on the cable system. “Of course, the equipment has changed over the years, and now cable companies know about lease access, and it's easier to have your programs aired,” he said.
Jackson Media TV has created all types of local shows, such as "Good Ole Days" (a live call-in show where community members reminisce about yesteryear), "Tell It & Sell It" (a live call-in swap shop show), "Around Town with Catherine Brown" (a show about living on a budget) and "The Music Factory" (a showcase for local talent). “I love to create local programs,” Jackson said.
If you are starting a cable TV station, Jackson suggests that you first know the expenses involved, the audience you want to reach, the insurance you will need and the procedures that you will have to follow when working with your cable company. You also will need to sell advertising and promote your station.
Dave Callaway, the general manager of the Satilla Faith and Community Channel in Waycross, Georgia, sells advertising face to face. His channel airs Christian-based music programs as well as local church services. “We call on businesses in person,” said Callaway, who started his cable TV station in 2012. “I am not a fan of telephone solicitations.”
Promoting your station through social media can also help you draw viewers and advertisers. Advisers also can help you to get started. Both Callaway and Jackson said that Stogner guided them through the process by helping them work with their local cable companies and assisting them in obtaining the proper insurance. Callaway also worked with an engineer who was experienced in IT requirements.
Jim Molis has more than 20 years of experience writing for and about businesses. He has been a business reporter for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer, a managing editor of the Atlanta Business Chronicle and an editor of the Jacksonville Business Journal. He also has written for management consultants, professional services firms and numerous publications as a freelancer.