Ultra-targeted sports channels are rushing in to serve the 33 million-subscriber digital cable and s


Stand back, ESPN. Karate, judo, jujitsu and tae kwon do might not seem broadly appealing enough to support a 24-hour cable channel, but the backers of Blackbelt TV are banking that come next spring their nascent network will do for martial that MTV did for the music video and the Food Network did for Emeril Lagasse.

Sporting a round-the-clock lineup of programming ranging from Thai kickboxing tournaments to reruns of The Karate Kid(Blackbelt TV says it has built the biggest library of martial arts movies and classic sporting events anywhere, amounting to more than 15,000 hours of programming), parent Threshold Entertainment expects to get the Los Angeles-based network into 6 million homes by April Fool's Day. Threshold, the company behind the Mortal Kombat movie and video game franchise, is bankrolling the channel.

Creating a new cable network certainly no small feat in this business environment, even as the explosion in digital technology makes way for specialized networks, thanks to ever-expanding channel capacity. “People would say maybe it's not the best timing, starting a neetwork in one of the worst advertising markets in years,” concedes Blackbelt COO Wesley Hein, who earlier co-funded Enigma Digital, a radio station network eventually acquired by Clear Channel Communication. “But for us, it was the best time. If you look at cable right now and what viewers are faced with, they're saying, 'Hmm, look at all the neat channels coming out.' but most of those channels are recycled analog content.”

Off the record, some pooh-pooh the prospects of Blackbelt TV, poiinting out that its top executives-including chairman Larry Kasanoff, producer of the Mortal Kombat movies and a co-funder, with Titanic and Terminator director James Cameron, of Lightstorm Entertainment, and president Joshua Wexler, a Mortal Kombat producer- have impressive action-entertainment experience but have never before built a cable network. The next layer of management at the channel, however, includes several cable veterans, including senior vp/programming and acquisitions Paul Presburger, who helped launch Sony's action-adventure channel AXN at Columbia TriStar International Televison. Still others question the viability of a network devoted to kickboxing, kung fu and the like.

Even though Blackbelt TV has yet to announce any distribution agreements, it already has secured commitments from such deep-pocketed advertisers as the U.S. Marines, General Motors and others hungry to reach the network's natural 18-to-34-year-old male constituency. As Hein explains:”Six million may seem small compared to 60 million, but that's a very valuable demographic”...

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