Nashville film buffs looking for something more than the standard fare offered up by HBO and other networks lost one of their best options when the new year rang in last week.
The four-year-old Documentary Channel, also known as DOC, went dark on their Comcast cable due to a relaunch of the station and having to sever ties with Nashville Public Television.
James Ackerman, president and CEO of The Documentary Channel, said his team needed to make changes in order for the station to grow and survive. The big change was to convert to a for-profit entity, which meant that the nonprofit NPT could no longer carry the network's signal.
"When the channel launched in early 2006, it did so through a 501 c3 classified as a public interest channel, also known as a PI channel," said Ackerman. "The FCC requires satellite operators to earmark a certain amount of satellite capacity for the distribution of "educational/non-commercial" channels."
At the time of The Documentary Channel's launch, Ackerman said DISH Network was in need of a new PI channel. Overnight, DOC was available to substantially all of DISH Network's millions of subscribers. From there, the channel secured distribution through retransmission deals with local public TV stations like WNPT.
In layman's terms, a PI channel is akin to a public TV station in the sky. PI channels by and large have the same restrictions as any public TV station. Ackerman said that like all PI channels, DOC was extremely limited in its ability to generate revenue. It could sell sponsorships, but not regular commercials and its carriage agreement with DISH had to be renewed annually. Further, because cable operators are not required to carry PI channels, for the most part they don't.
"This past summer, it became very clear if The Documentary Channel was going to survive and have any hope of delivering a return to investors," Ackerman said, "DOC was going to have to abandon its PI status and become a fully commercial business. We spent much of this past summer negotiating a multi-year carriage agreement with DISH as a fully commercial channel."
With that deal in place, Ackerman was named president and CEO – replacing founder Tom Neff, who is now chief creative officer – jettisoned the 501(c)(3) status and raised a new round of funding.
Ackerman has experience in his new role. In February 2005, he founded Spinnaker Media LLC, which is a shareholder of The Documentary Channel, and served as the interim CEO of ClickStar Inc., a company founded by Intel Corp. and actor Morgan Freeman’s Revelations Entertainment. (Solidus Co., which is a prominent shareholder of NashvillePost.com parent Southcomm, also holds a stake in The Documentary Channel.)
Before that, Ackerman served as CEO of Nasdaq-listed OpenTV Corp. from 2000 to 2004 and as CEO of British Interactive Broadcasting. He also was managing director of Sky Ventures, where he oversaw a portfolio of joint-venture channels including Nickelodeon UK, Paramount Comedy Channel, QVC UK, The History Channel UK and The National Geographic Channel.
After taking the helm, Ackerman says that he has had his hands full. He has moved his team to Music Row from Rosa Parks Boulevard, entered into nearly a dozen agreements to acquire documentary films and produced the channel's first original series, "DOC Talk", which premiered on New Year's Day.
Then there's the issue of distribution.
"We have been out to see nearly ever major operator, including Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cablevision, DirecTV, Verizon and AT&T among others," Ackerman said. "And we have attracted scores of new advertisers to the channel."
Asked about the termination of the relationship with NPT, Ackerman said DOC's relaunch as a fully commercial channel created some "a big hassle for both DOC and NPT" when it came to replacing commercial content.
"It seemed to us we were having to use a lot of effort to support a relationship that has no opportunity to generate additional revenue," he said. "We run a tight ship and cannot afford to expend energy on things that aren't delivering a return. So we (DOC and NPT) agreed that it was time to bring our retransmission deal to an end."
Ackerman did make a pitch for his network's hometown to help bring back his channel locally. "Most people in Nashville who watched our channel via NPT2 did so through Comcast. For those who are Comcast subscribers, we are encouraging folks to call Comcast and graciously request they carry The Documentary Channel. A simple call or email to Comcast will do the trick. Comcast pays close attention to what channels their subscribers are requesting. So every call makes a difference."