Knock, Knock! No joke, new nets are hoping the National Show will be a launchpad. By Shirley Brady It didn’t take long for the most colorful new programmer parading its wares at last year’s National Show in the hopes of getting carriage to turn into its own punch line by Labor Day. "Knock, knock." "Who’s there?" "Used to be Jokevision, but we’ve fired all our staff and gone home…" You’d think the swift, unfunny and dot-com-like ending to the start-up’s digital dream of 24/7 nonstop jokes told by regular folks would put a chill in the hearts of other would-be niche channels contemplating a cable launch. You’d think. The surest sign of spring in the cable industry is the hope in the air this week at the National Show, where at least 35 new services will be working the floor—and that’s a conservative estimate of independents in waiting. That doesn’t even include pending channels from media conglomerates such as the gay-oriented Outlet from Viacom, TNT HD from Turner or AETN’s Hispanic launch. Nor does that figure include any programmer-based spin-offs such as The Outdoor Channel 2, a hi-def launch targeting July 2005, or the branded stand-alone network in the pipeline from PPV powerhouse WWE, which also is touting its classic wrestling SVOD product at the show. The network perhaps most eager to distance itself from the sad laugh track that was Jokevision is SCTV (booth 1031), short for Stand Up Comedy TV, not Second City (even though it shares the same hometown of Chicago). Its one-liner: upscale comedic programming emphasizing live broadcasts of commercial free stand-up from their own Chi-town studios. And a whole lot of other funny programming, of course, to round that out. National Show also will see a startup flip for joy when the Anime Network, in booth 4222, becomes the first VOD service to announce a 24/7 network. It’s usually the other way around, but owning a massive library and proving its worth as a youth magnet from Comcast’s VOD flagship market in Philadelphia to subsequent VOD markets, helped pave its way for a linear launch. One booth sure to see some action—if only for its professional croupiers and other Vegas accoutrements—is 4047, where Casino Gaming and Television will be pitching its niche in a year that’s seen Texas Hold ‘Em poker driving ratings for ESPN, Bravo and the Travel Channel, whose former EVP and GM, Steve Cheskin, is advising CGTV. First-time NCTA exhibitors also include Bridges TV, targeting the 8 million North American Muslims, 2 million of whom are Arab-Americans. Bridges CEO Mo Hassan is negotiating with Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cablevision and has Muhammad Ali on its advisory board. Hassan decided recently to take a booth (2129) as he’s eager to secure commitments for a launch before Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that begins Oct. 15. He’s acquiring more than 3,000 hours of English-language content, with plans to launch with a 4 p.m. to midnight programming wheel before going to a 24-hour format. Two other fledgling ethnic programmers are on the exhibit floor: Aastha Broadcasting Network (booth 4167), a spiritual-based service from India that lists its on-air gurus (and their e-mail addresses) on its website and is available overseas on satellite; and ImaginAsian TV (booth 4023), which aggressively has been acquiring Asian content for the U.S. market and is opening a branded cinema in Manhattan to showcase its films and promote the channel in one of its key target markets. As the first Jewish-oriented premium digital service exhibiting at the National Show, Shalom TV (booth 3961) is seeking to share subscription revenues to support its mix of public affairs, events such as lectures, observances, Talmud readings plus relevant films, interviews and related shows. Another startup that has some Jewish-oriented programming from Israel but is focused on a broader programming mix designed to enrich viewers’ lives—the Destiny Channel—is attending the show but not exhibiting. The Martial Arts Channel (booth 4255) is bringing Tae Bo expert Billy Blanks, an adviser to the network—Blackbelt TV, an exhibitor in 2003, is not showing this year—while Hustler TV (booth 4029) is bringing its owner, Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, to New Orleans. Also not exhibiting after creating near-pandemonium last year by bringing Michael Jackson to the floor: MBC, which has since postponed its planned launch of a spin-off African-American news network for the moment. With one MSO deal announced, Reality Central (booth 1865) is hoping to get commitments beyond Insight shortly, and is also in the midst of a national "pub crawl" tour to bring its reality stars to local markets. Also wielding some solid entertainment kudos: here! tv in booth 1823, which is launching as a 24/7 premium service for gays and lesbians on Oct. 1. Founded by film producers Paul Colichman and Stephen P. Jarchow, the revenue-share-touting, PPV or subscription-based linear launch builds on its current three-to-six-hour DirecTV and Dish Network PPV offering. It will make a 30-hour package available to for cable operators’ SVOD or PPV lineups June 1. Q Television, formerly known as the Triangle TV Network, is pitching its gay network concept in executive suite 10, while PrideVision TV, the Canadian-based service, also is being repped at the show but not staking a claim at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The rawer-than-Spike TV, testosterone-fueled MavTV is working out (perhaps literally) of executive suite 7 to present its mix of male-oriented programming that is unedited, raw and edgy. Their slogan— "It’s a man’s world, we’re just broadcasting it"—kind of says it all. Also generating buzz in the executive suite area: the Scream Channel (suite 11), a start-up backed and programmed by two Hollywood legends: producers Joel Silver, whose many blockbusters include The Matrix trilogy, and Bob Zemeckis, whose credits include What Lies Beneath and other spine-tinglers. Focused on licensing, acquiring or producing (through their Dark Castle Entertainment shingle) horror, suspense and similar fare for the 18-to-34 male viewer, earlier this year they hired Kim Bangash, whose former partners at similar-veined startup the Horror Channel are still seeking a Halloween launch. Bangash’s former colleagues Nick Psaltos and Chris Apostle say they hope to attend the National Show but declined to discuss the nature of their fallout with Bangash—part of the rocky road that is channel-launch hell. Twisted Sister singer Dee Snider has been approached by both services as an on-air front man. Snider recounted his dealings with both parties during a guest appearance at the recent World Horror Convention, whose chairman, Mike Willmouth, said of the two services that, based on name alone, fans would likely gravitate toward the Horror Channel moniker, although much would depend on the titles and tone (schlock vs. serious, high-quality fare) of each network. Some digital aspirants aren’t found in booths or executive suites at the show. Seasoned programmers such as Brad Siegel, former president of Turner Entertainment Networks, and Charles Humbard, former SVP and GM of Discovery Networks, are working out of nearby hotels—in their case, the Windsor Court Hotel—to pitch their Gospel Music Channel to prospective affiliates. They have an agreement to negotiate space on Cox systems but have no launch commitments yet. Also preaching the value of the gospel fan base is Southern Entertainment Television (booth 4326), featuring three all-music video channels of bluegrass, Southern gospel and classic Black gospel content. And then there’s MP Network, which is targeting a fourth-quarter launch. MP Network CEO Larry Moore will be at the show, but has no cable deals to speak of. Some 24/7 networks seeking a U.S. launch—such as the Wine Network from husband-and-wife team Patrick Brunet and Lorie Kim, and the aforementioned PrideVision—won’t be in evidence at the show. Those two services are letting their domestic launch consultant, Cathy Rasenberger, pitch their merits along with the other new networks she’s representing during her meetings with operators. Rasenberger also is working with BlueHighways TV, the Americana lifestyle network from CMT co-founder Stan Hitchcock, which isn’t exhibiting at the show. Others, such as RipeTV, a triple-threat (video on demand, pay-per-view and broadband) programmer now ramping up in Los Angeles, hadn’t made up their minds by press time whether they’d attend NCTA because they’re in the thick of meetings with advertisers. One programmer whose execs definitely made up their minds not to attend is Wheels TV, the car-oriented service still gearing up in Acton, Mass.; they had hoped to launch by last month but are still lining up adequate funding. That’s a first-things-first cautious attitude that might have helped Jokevision, which blew the roof off its budget at last year’s National Show and suffered a burn rate that led its backer to pull out and put a stop to the madness weeks later. (Nice business cards, though…) The list of start-ups not mentioned here but who will be on the floor is as long as a typical Mardi Gras parade, and often just as colorful. Despite this crush of aspiring services, it promises to be a more sober (make that "practical"—this is New Orleans, after all) show than years (and Western Shows) gone by. And if any of these services find themselves getting worried that they might not still be around by Labor Day, they can always swing by the Career Entertainment Television booth (2264). Who knows? Maybe they’re hiring.