If you haven’t heard of Larry Kasanoff, you don’t know Hollywood. The prolific producer of such hits as “Terminator 2” and “True Lies” branched out on his own a few years ago to spearhead the “Mortal Kombat” movie franchise before embarking on his current undertaking: Blackbelt TV, an emerging cable network with carriage in more than 40 countries and in the process of tackling the U.S. market. While mixed martial arts has become the staple of many cable networks aimed at young males, Blackbelt TV has expanded coverage to include martial-arts movies, original programming and lifestyle programming—not to mention an injection of celebrity and fun with its beautiful “fight jocks” who emcee the net’s eclectic mix of content. Kasanoff’s basic pitch: “We are the Food Network of martial arts; while they are just the pasta channel.” We sat down with Kasanoff in his Santa Monica studio to discuss the challenges facing indie nets and Blackbelt TV’s strategy for tackling the U.S. market.
What do you see as the main mission of Blackbelt TV?
First, to be the best martial arts sports and entertainment network in the world, and to be worldwide. Next, to be one of the top three brands in martial arts sports and entertainment in the world. I foresee a day when we will expand to apps, original movies, video games and more. I know this might sound a bit arrogant, but I’ve done it before with Mortal Kombat.
Explain how Blackbelt TV different from other nets that show MMA fights. What’s your pitch to distributors?
They are all fight networks. We are that plus much, much more. Blackbelt TV is a martial arts oriented sports and entertainment network, appealing to 18-49 year old guys by showing: 1) A wide variety of fights—boxing MMA, Karate, Muay Thay and more; 2) Movies, Hollywood celebrities, gorgeous girls; and 3) Original programming. We are the Food Network of martial arts; while they are just the pasta channel. Blackbelt TV is unique because it includes 1) sports – many different kinds of fighting; 2) entertainment—movies, TV, video games, stars, beautiful girls; 3) lifestyle. We include all of these. They don’t. Thus, our motto: kicks, flicks and chicks. (their motto would be, “One kind of punch, that’s it”). Plus, not to be too arrogant, but I run Blackbelt, and I have produced successful martial arts entertainment for years; they have not. We take the diverse world of martial arts, Hollywood it up, add tons of original programming and have a unique network.
You’ve just started to focus on original content. What’s the strategy there?
We are a young network, only a few years old. In the evolution of almost every successful network comes a time when they forge ahead in original programming. We are just doing it sooner than most. We will have ten original shows soon. As a sports and entertainment network, this allows us to satisfy our audience and most importantly helps us be unique. Again, we “Hollywood up” martial arts. As an example, we are about to launch a show called, “The Fight Scene.” Everyone knows the best thing about the movie is the fight scene, so this so takes the best fights scenes from movies, TV and the web, from all over the world, and shows them to you.
Blackbelt TV has distribution in 46 countries, but the U.S. market has been more of a challenge. What are the biggest hurdles you face with content gatekeepers in the U.S.?
All around the world, with the kind of action, sci fi and martial arts movies and TV that I make, the challenge is the gatekeepers, often not the audience. No blame. No whining. Just what it is. We appeal to young guys who love kicks, flicks and chicks. People who run distribution MSOs usually are not that profile. So we are always looking for the Rosetta Stone of this, to explain why it doesn’t matter—with all due respect—what you watch… It matters what our audience wants. And our audience—young guys—are the most likely to expand to triple-play services because they want high speed internet for online gaming and social networking.
Where do you see the biggest distribution opportunities globally and why?
The United States used to be about 60-70% of the world market for action and sports entertainment. With foreign growth, it has become about 20-25%. The entertainment pie is getting bigger; the slices are getting smaller. So we are in the pie business, so to speak. We are now in the U.S., Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. Our next priority is South and Latin America. Creatively, this is easy because so many great fighters are Hispanic, and martial arts is very popular among Hispanic and multicultural demos. Plus, growth of the Hispanic audience in the U.S. is clearly booming. So we’re working with operators to launch on digital, as well as their Hispanic and multicultural tiers.
And how does Blackbelt TV’s global reach affect how you approach programming?
We are able to bring the best martial arts sports and entertainment from the world, to the world. When we launch in say, Kenya, it gives us the opportunity to find great programming we otherwise may not, and we can show it to the world. It greatly helps us in acquisitions because we can offer a local fight league—for example, instantaneous world exposure—while appealing to our diverse multicultural audience. Plus, in the U.S., we can cover local fights in partnership with our cable affiliate, which is a nice differentiator.
Many indie cable nets are exploring OTT options. Why do you remain focused on linear carriage and authenticated content? And would you consider OTT at some point?
Right now, you have to pick. You can’t be free online and then not free on say, Time Warner Cable. So we provide our distributors with TV Everywhere rights, allowing them the ability to show our content—to their paying customers—anywhere they want. Plus, martial arts, by its nature includes rounds of fighting or fight scenes in movies—perfect 3-to-5 minute segments for mobile, VOD and online marketing. This is great for our distributors to offer. We have over 1,000 of these kind of clips and counting. So we are in the OTT business, so to speak, but only in a manner that supports our distributors.
There’s so much competition for eyeballs these days, whether it’s linear TV or online. What do you see as the future of video distribution both in the U.S. and around the world?
I think it’s nothing but opportunity. First, there was just cable. Then came the addition of satellite. Then the phone companies. Next will be, I think, connectivity companies as I call them, like Yahoo and Google and Intel, becoming de facto MSOs. And the early adopters of such things are young guys—our audience. So what will all these additional distributors need? Kicks, flicks and chicks, of course!
You have been very successful in the movie business. Based on your Blackbelt TV experience, what’s the tougher business: Movies or TV?
Here are the two differences. Creatively, movies are a sprint, and TV is a marathon. When you make a movie, it is crazy, 24/7 for 18 months… then it’s done. A TV network is like that old “I Love Lucy” show where the cakes just keep coming and coming down the assembly line. Businesswise, with a movie, you only have to convince one distributor per territory; with TV, your goal is to convince every distributor per territory.