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Martial-Arts Channel Aims to Leap Onto Cable Rosters

Can Blackbelt TV, selling itself as MTV for fight fans, break media titan's programming grip?

Jackie Chan and Jet Li may be big action stars, but do they have enough juice to justify a cable network devoted solely to fists of fury?

Larry kasanoff hopes so, and despite long odds, he plans to launch a martial-arts channel early next year. The producer of “Mortal Kombat” films, who also worked with “Terminator” director James Cameron to create production company Lightstrom Entertainment, has a big vision for Blackbelt TV, which will telecast fights, movies and even some Japanese animation.

“We want to do the same thing for the martial arts that MTV did for music,” says Mr. Kasanoff, who expects the Los Angeles-based channel to hit the market with at least four million cable and satellite subscribers.

It's no secret that fight and violence are big business on cable television. Wrestling shows often pull in top rating on Vlacom Inc.'s MTV and TNN channels. And for all the type HBO gets for “ The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” the AOL Time Warner Inc. channel's heavy load of boxing is just as important in keeping many subscribers on board, Zuffa LLC, which produces ultimate fighting, a mixed martial arts-style of battle, has had growing success with pay-per-view bouts. And as ever, advertisers are clamoring for ways to reach men 18 to 34 years of ages: Violence and action are proven lures.

Still, getting Blackbelt TV to audiences may be tougher than surviving a bout with “The Replacement Killers” star Chow Yun Fat. For starters, most successful cable channels are owned by big media concerns with the clout to launch new networks. Convincing cable operators to pick up a new independent channel is made harder due to their difficulty in passing on the cost of new programming to subscribers: Congress could impose new rate regulations if fees go much higher.

Mr.Kasanoff, who has assembled a team of executives with Walt Disney Co., declines to say how many cable operators have agreed to carry the channel. Instead, be talks about its low costs, putting the break-even point at $60 million, and appeal to viewers.

He has secured international rights to about 15,000 hours of programming so far, from Hong Kong movies to David Carradine's Kung Fu television program. Blackbelt aims to offer an international version of the service at some point, Sony, which sold programming to Blackbelt TV, has warrants to invest in the channel.

Most of the movies and fights that Blackbelt has acquired are inexpensive because they are from overseas, often in Mandarin or Cantonese, or were sitting on big studios' shelves. “The prices we're spending per hour of programming vary from $2,500 to a few hundred thousand dollars per hour, Mr. Kasanoff says. By contrast, reruns of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” on TNN fetch $1.6 million per eplode.

Blackbelt doesn't plan to invest much on original programming at first, but will enhance the fights with visual effects and graphics. If that's not enough, Mr. Kasanoff says, “our entire network is hosted by women.”

The upstart channel may face a match down the road. The Martial-Arts Action Network, an Oriando, Fla, channel, is hopping to launch service in late spring. Tony Interdomato, CEO of Martial Arts Action Network and a former producer, says his channel has about 17.000 hours of programming. He concedes he's targeting a small niche but says he “won't go down without a fight.”

To make itself more appealing to operators wary of adding new services, Blackbelt TV may offer itself as a free service for a year or two. While on the surface that sounds like a no-lose deal, operators don't see it that way.

“We have a saying in this industry, 'The first bag of heroin is always free,'” says Fred Dresster, senior vice president of programming at AOL's Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest operator. The problem, he says, is that adding new channels no longer translated into new subscribers. Eventually, he adds, a channel will want a license fee and it's hard to charge subscribers to cover the expense. Mr. Dressler declined to comment on Blackbelt's prospects.

Mr. Kasanoff knows he'll have to chop through a few industry bricks to make Blackbelt a success, but he remains confident. “We know people like to watch this stuff,” he says. Being small, he adds, may even give his outfit an edge: “Conglomerates by their nature are not entrepreneur. They'd rather spend $110 on something risky.”

not that he sees Blackbelt fighting solo for life. He wouldn't mind if it followed the same path as the Sci-Fi Channel, which began as a small network dependent on reruns and is now part of Vlvendl Universal SA. “A scrappy independent that sold out and became big and huge?” he says, “That would be great.”

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