How to Launch and Grow a New Cable Network
New cable networks don’t pop into existence at random. There’s a process. Cable gives birth to new networks in a variety of interesting ways. There’s the buyout technique, in which one network purchases an existing channel and launches in its place. That’s what happened when Al Jazeera America assumed Current TV’s spot on the channel lineup in 2013. There are networks that spin off from existing channels, such as TeenNick, and FXX, sibling of the FX Network. Then there’s perhaps the most challenging method – starting a new network from scratch. Channels like Revolt TV, the music channel from Hip-hop mogul Sean “Puffy” Combs, and El Rey Network, director Robert Rodriguez’s baby, that are entirely new and original.
For any cable newbie, two great challenges exist: How to stand out from a crowded field of viewer choices and how to grow an audience. Every network has its own strategy for meeting those goals. To learn more about how one new network is going about it, we talked with Chad Blankenship, Senior Vice President, Marketing & Communications for El Rey Network. Cable welcomed El Rey into the world in December 2013.
From your perspective Chad, what are the challenges in general of launching a new cable network?
Many are just what you would expect from starting a brand new business. You have to chart a business plan and stick with it. But carriage, or distributorship, is a huge priority in the cable business, of course. Fortunately, we have a really terrific partnership with Univision, which is a minority investor in El Rey, and we can leverage a lot of their marketplace strength. Another challenge is building a brand.
How is El Rey building its brand?
Part of our strategy is to start with a core audience who will have the deepest level of passion for the type of content we’re carrying and get the message in front of them and drive viewership. Anecdotally, one thing we’re seeing with social media is a lot of demand and enthusiasm from fans that don’t even have the channel yet. That’s a promising indicator. From a standing start, that’s a pretty good story.
“El Rey’s original programming has quickly gained attention for the network.”
Robert Rodriguez is widely respected as a filmmaker who does it all—writing, directing, producing, casting. How does his vision come into play at El Rey?
He’s very actively involved in the network from our programming decisions to marketing messaging and the approach we are taking whether it’s around our original series, or unscripted, or even social media. He’s really savvy and as sharp a marketer as he is a filmmaker and artist.
How is Rodriguez’s background growing up in San Antonio as the son of Mexican immigrants reflected in programming?
El Rey is a general market network that’s consciously inclusive of Latinos. In his movies, Robert sets out to tell compelling stories that he finds interesting and thinks that all audiences will find interesting. They’re rooted in human truths and narratives that moviegoers are familiar with and enjoy interacting with. El Rey is not setting out to make Latino content, we’re setting out to make content of the true America. Yet if you talk with many Latinos, they’ll share with you that they have an even deeper relationship with the characters because they happen to be Latino. That’s part of the mission with El Rey—second and third generation Latinos are a big part of our target
Are originals are part of your overall strategy?
Yes. As far as originals, we’ve come out swinging as a brand new upstart network. We just flipped the switch on in December  and really gained our stride in February . A month later we launched our first original series [From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series], which might be unprecedented for a brand new network, especially one that came out from a standing start. We didn’t take over another existing network or subscriber base. We started from the ground up and had very strong interest from four of the five largest MVPDs (multichannel video programming distributor). We’re distributed across Time Warner, Comcast, Cox, and DirectTV. I think the early carriage we received from MVPD is evidence of their belief in our creative vision and in our original series.
The Director’s Chair is an unscripted original with Robert interviewing famous directors. It’s adding a lot of prestige to the network. What other unscripted originals are on the horizon?
Producer Mark Burnett brought Lucha Underground to the network. It’s based on Lucha Libre, the pro wrestling that is hugely popular in Mexico. It tends to be more-high flying, literally and figuratively, than the quote, unquote, American style of pro wrestling, and matches and moves are quicker. The luchadors [wrestlers] wear masks and there tends to be more mysticism surrounding them. Lucha Underground will have good and evil themes and fans will have the opportunity to align themselves with their favorite luchadors.
Where would you like to see El Rey in five years?
On the originals side, we have ambitious plans to grow the portfolio of scripted and unscripted. On the distribution side, we could be in the vast majority of cable households. It can take many years, maybe over a decade, to build to 95 or 100 million homes. But we’re extremely bullish.
As of March 2015, approximately 40 million receive the El Rey Network.