September 29, 2015 2 years 3 weeks ago

Former specialty channel execs going global and hyper-niche with new over-the-top services

TORONTO — Clearly seeing over-the-top as the biggest opportunity currently in the market, several former specialty channel executives have banded together to form a new digital media company that plans to launch a number of niche subscription-based OTT channels in 2016.

TableRock Media was founded in Toronto in 2014 but only recently went public with its plans to launch a collection of hyper-niche Internet-based channels, initially targeted at guitar, motorcycle and aviation enthusiasts. TableRock Media’s trio of co-founders are: chief executive officer Jeffrey Elliott (third from left in the photo), former founder and CEO of GlassBOX Television; chief operating officer Joseph Arcuri (far right), former CFO at GlassBOX and former president of AOL Canada; and chief creative officer David Hatch (far left), founder of WhistleStop Productions.

The TableRock Media board of directors is chaired by Ken Murphy (second from left), co-founder of High Fidelity HDTV and former president and general manager of Discovery Channel (Canada). Also on the company’s board are Henry Eaton (third from right), president of Eaton Ventures, and Francis MacDougall (second from right), founder of GestureTek.

Prior to its acquisition by Blue Ant Media (along with High Fidelity) in 2012, GlassBOX was recognized as an innovative digital media company, with the now former BiteTV specialty channel winning an International Emmy for interactive broadcasting in 2007.

In an interview with Cartt.ca, Elliott said he decided to take some time off after selling GlassBOX, and it was about 18 months ago when he and the other TableRock co-founders began looking at the opportunity OTT presented to the television market. “We were reaching the tipping point of where television was going to change in a meaningful way, and by that I mean with OTT,” Elliott said, adding that the market has now arrived at “that wonderful little sweet spot” where connected device technology, wide-spread broadband adoption and consumer adoption have all converged.

“I think Netflix has done a masterful job in creating that marketplace. They were the one that created the wave. And when I can explain to my mom what we’re doing and she goes, ‘Oh, it’s like Netflix,’ it was part of my ‘a-ha’ moment that we’re there, we’ve arrived, we’ve passed the tipping point.”

“And when I can explain to my mom what we’re doing and she goes, ‘Oh, it’s like Netflix,’ it was part of my ‘a-ha’ moment.” Jeff Elliott, TableRock Media

Elliott said he expects the OTT market will increase dramatically over the next few years. Currently a $2.3-billion market, according to Elliott, the OTT business opportunity is estimated to grow to a $12-billion industry globally in 2018. “So there’s going to be plenty of opportunity. First-mover status is important and establishing a brand is going to be important,” Elliott said.

Since its official launch in mid-August, TableRock Media has been working on its branding strategy for the first three channels it plans to offer: Guitars, Motorcycles and Aviation. Not coincidentally, these channels are focused on the passions of TableRock’s three founding partners. Elliott has been a pilot for 30 years. Joseph Arcuri is a guitar collector and self-taught guitarist who plays in a band called Midlife Crisis. David Hatch is a motorcycle enthusiast and long-time host of TSN’s Motorcycle Experience TV show.

The company has almost finalized its production slate and will ideally start production in early January, Elliott said. He explained TableRock plans to produce 80% of its content, with much of that original programming being produced by the WhistleStop creative team headed by Hatch. “David has a wonderful production facility out in Prince Edward County (Ontario), so that will certainly make up the bulk of it. But as I’m sure you’ve noticed, there are a lot of underemployed independent producers in this country at this particular point in time. We have a tremendous amount of great talent in this country, and we plan on taking advantage of that at the same time,” he added.

TableRock is also in the middle of an RFP process to sign up a technology partner to provide the back-end infrastructure for content distribution.

“When you don’t have a giant technological infrastructure in the background that you have to maintain, upgrade and so on, you remove a huge cost component to your overall operating cost,” Elliott said. “There are now more than a dozen companies that specialize in distribution, providing you with everything from cloud-based storage and payment gateways and digital rights management and user analytics that literally cost tens of millions of dollars that we can now use.”

“I don’t have to go to any BDU and ask them if they’ll carry me and wait. I just do it.” - Elliott

He added that not only is there a financial advantage to going OTT, but there’s also a benefit time-wise. “I don’t have to go to any BDU and ask them if they’ll carry me and wait. I just do it. If we believe that we have a big enough audience to make this business work, then we can go and do it. Certainly, with these three particular genres that we’re starting with, we believe that there’s a big underserved market and we’re going at it full steam,” Elliott said.

According to Elliott, there are $1 billion worth of guitars manufactured every year and more than $4.5 billion worth of Harley-Davidsons and Harley merchandise manufactured annually. “These are areas that are completely underserved (by television). Yet, you can see by the amount they are contributing to the economy, they’re actually meaningful sectors to explore. But they have not been looked after,” he explained, pointing out that TSN’s Motorcycle Experience is the only general motorcycle show on television in Canada.

Elliott said the Guitars, Motorcycles and Aviation channels will be available as separate subscriptions, but because they are “cousin channels” that will have a certain amount of audience crossover, some sort of discount mechanism will be offered to people who subscribe to more than one of the channels. TableRock has not yet indicated how the channel subscriptions will be priced.  

In terms of programming content for the channels, Elliott drew an analogy with magazines. “When I get my Flying magazine once a month...it has its regular departments that talk about certain aspects of flying, and then it has a feature or a theme that runs through it.”

Similarly, the TableRock channels will offer short-form video and written content related to guitars, motorcycles and aviation, supplemented by longer-form features and documentaries. By way of example, the Guitars channel might run a feature on Led Zeppelin, which could include an interview with Jimmy Page, a studio session showing how to replicate his guitar sound, a mini-documentary about the studio where Led Zeppelin recorded its most famous albums, plus an acquired documentary on Led Zeppelin and one of its concert films.

In addition to the online content available through the channels, TableRock will also provide subscribers with access to exclusive events and social engagement with other people who share their passions.

“We want to be in the middle of an ecosystem that’s based around people’s passions.” - Elliott

“When you’re watching regular television, you’re sitting back, you’re enjoying it. But we’re talking about an audience that is completely engaged with the subject matter,” Elliott said. “People who are passionate about their particular interests are very interested in talking and communicating and socializing with other people who have the same interests... We want to be in the middle of an ecosystem that’s based around people’s passions.”

Using the subscription business model to monetize its content, TableRock’s channels will avoid having any pre-roll advertising. However, the company has been in discussions with various manufacturers about branding opportunities.

“Part of our business strategy includes branded content that would be based and in some ways supported by some of the manufacturers,” Elliott said. “We have to be very careful, though, because we want to be authentic. We understand what these passions are about, and if there’s any whiff of pandering, then it won’t work.”

During the same phone interview with Cartt.ca, Arcuri echoed Elliott’s sentiments: “One of the tenets of our business is never to lose our authenticity, and in no way do we want to jeopardize that. We will work with manufacturers or other folks like that, but we want to remain true to the passion, whether it be guitars, motorcycles or aviation.”

TableRock’s direct-to-consumer digital channels will be available through Apple and Android devices, set-top boxes, video game consoles and other platforms when they are launched to a global audience in 2016.