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A Caribbean TV Channel, Finally?
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Posted by:Mar 14th 2005, 11:52:04 am
Fig Tree News TeamMarch 14, 2005
A Caribbean TV Channel, Finally?

ZNS-TV is already on board with the collaborative The Caribbean Channel project.

After a series of false starts, officials of the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC) say plans are finally on track to launch The Caribbean Channel, a satellite-delivered television service of regional information, culture and lifestyle to the United States market.

The service should become operational by June 2005, according to Lester Spaulding, chairman of the Barbados-based CMC and CEO of the RJR Communications Group, one of at least four Jamaican partners in the venture.

Creation of The Caribbean Channel should be hailed as a new, additional opportunity to connect with the large West Indian Diaspora in the United States - an opportunity of particular interest to governments, businesses, the tourism sector and the cultural and entertainment industries.

Handled right, it should also facilitate a more sustained, intelligent conversation about Caribbean vision and values among people inside and outside the region.

This is especially timely in the context of regional integration and the hotly-contested Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) and the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).

The Caribbean Channel is now happening as a result of an agreement between the CMC and EchoStar Satellite Corporation under which EchoStar will distribute the channel on its Dish Network - a direct-to-home (DTH) satellite service.

Dish Network currently has some 11 million subscribers, placing it just behind market leader DirecTV, which has some 12 million. Content for The Caribbean Channel will be provided mainly from participating TV stations and production houses in the region.

Those already on board include TVJ, CVM-TV, the Jamaica Information Service (JIS) and the Creative Production and Training Centre (CPTC) from Jamaica; TV 6, the leading television station in Trinidad; ZNS-TV, the national broadcaster from the Bahamas; the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) the national broadcaster from Barbados; and Cuba's Institute of Radio and Television, the ICRT.

US-based subscribers to The Caribbean Channel, which will be marketed as an ethnic channel, will be asked to pay somewhere between US$12 and US$15 per month for the service. Some other successful ethnic channels on EchoStar are the Japanese, Israeli and Chinese channels where subscribers pay about US$20 per month.

On a visit to Barbados this past week, I caught up with Errol Clarke, chief operating officer of the CMC, who was confident that there will be enough subscribers to The Caribbean Channel to make it financially viable, both for the CMC and the participating media houses.

Subscription revenue will be shared, under an undisclosed formula, among EchoStar, a marketing company and the content providers. One reason for the upbeat mood among Spaulding, Clarke and other CMC people is that the business model does not require tremendous capital outlay or operating expenses.

That's because most of the content will be programmes initially produced and aired on the participating stations, which will cover basic production costs. Thus, re-distribution on The Caribbean Channel will represent a second revenue opportunity.

An earlier version of the channel required some US$4 million in equity for start-up capital, but this did not materialise. The stripped-down model has been used successfully by Asian Channel in the United Kingdom to reach that large ethnic community in Britain.

According to Spaulding, Asian Channel has been making such inroads into the television audience in the UK that traditional broadcasters like the BBC have been forced to take serious account of this new source of competition.

Whether The Caribbean Channel will have similar success in the United States will depend on several factors, including the ability of the regional stations to deliver consistently good quality programming that will encourage West Indians there to part with US$12 - US$15 a month.

Another is that the number of US homes with DTH satellite services is considerably smaller than those with wired cable, although DTH is the fastest growing segment of the subscriber television market. After a two-year exclusive arrangement with EchoStar, the CMC can also make deals to distribute The Caribbean Channel on cable, thus they will have access to subscribers on both platforms.

A third factor is that MTV, the global giant in the music television business, has plans to launch a Caribbean music television channel driven largely by Jamaican reggae music, but which will also feature Caribbean food, fashion and style to attract a more mature audience. Initially, The Caribbean Channel will concentrate on news and sport, information and cultural material but will obviously have to diversify in response to competitive pressures.

The speed with which the CMC will be able to diversify its product offerings will depend on the availability of human, technical and financial resources. In this connection, their plans suffered a major setback late last year when a long-standing European Union (EU) commitment to provide some 3.5 million euro for broadcast equipment and training was put in grave, perhaps fatal, jeopardy. Several persons familiar with the project say that last October, the EU unexpectedly told the CMC that all the equipment must be ordered and installed by December 2004 or else the whole project would be called off. "This was an impossible deadline," Vic Fernandes, CEO of the Starcom Network of Barbados and CMC board member, told me. Now, CMC top brass and EU officials are desperately seeking to get the project back on track. While there is some optimism, it is not a done deal, and in any event it will take at least 18 months for delivery.

The deal with the EU would have created a network of satellite-linked earth stations throughout the region, obtained studios and other broadcast equipment and training. With or without the EU money, the CMC officials say The Caribbean Channel will be a reality soon, but I believe it is crucial that the project be rescued.

A Caribbean TV channel has been long in the making. In the early 1990s, a pioneering Jamaican entrepreneur, Delroy Cowan, launched Caribbean Satellite Network, basically as a music channel, from a base in Miami. Maybe it was too early.

Also, JBC-TV pioneered the marketing of Jamaican television abroad through the sale of a comedy series with Oliver Samuels on small cable stations in US cities with large Caribbean populations. There have been other similar successes over the years by large TV stations as well as small, independent producers.

Now The Caribbean Channel is being launched at a time when technology and a new sense of Caribbean-ness combine to give it a real chance of success. It is a real opportunity for the people of the region to share ideas and experience and showcase our culture, talents and sporting skills to the rest of the world.

Claude Robinson, The Jamaica Observer

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