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USA Network's founder brings video to Third World

Kay Koplovitz has already made her mark on the cable television scene twice over, but now the founder of the USA and SyFy networks has her eyes on a new prize: globalization.

Beaming video to the technologically-advanced parts of the world is one thing, she noted. But there are wide swaths of the planet missing out on the current content revolution.

A contestant on Syfy's show Face Off working on one of his creations.
Syfy | NBC Universal | Getty Images
A contestant on Syfy's show Face Off working on one of his creations.

About a third of the planet has Internet access. Translated, that means 3.3 billion people live without high-speed connections to the world, according to Internet World Stats.

"[I want] to bring video on a global basis to rural areas not yet connected in local languages, which is quite a challenge. But it is, I think, the next big thing in video and connectivity," said Koplovitz, the first woman to serve as a network president in television history. "The world is going video. Look at the escalation of video and its enormous reach and impact. And the people who don't have access to it yet are still in the 15th century, but they will be in the 21st century during their lifetime, I believe."

The project is called Video4Villages, and its aim is to create a global platform using mobile distribution to make video content available on all phones, with local language subtitles. Koplovitz said the goal of the program is to "empower women globally, giving them access to knowledge."

The first step is a pilot, focusing on villages in India and then expanding into other parts of Asia, which will last for 12 months. Once proof of concept is obtained, Video4Villages will begin focusing on generating revenue, then begin a global rollout.

Koplovitz is something of an expert when it comes to breaking down walls in the television industry. She has been doing so for nearly 40 years.

In 1975 she was part of the team that brought the 'Thrilla in Manilla' boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier to people's homes. Two years later she launched one of the first basic cable channels: an all-sports service, Madison Square Garden Sports. By 1979 that network had changed its name to USA Network. By 1981 it broken even and was profitable. Later it went on to become one of the nation's biggest channels.

In 1992 she did it again, creating the Sci-Fi Channel (now called SyFy).

Kay Koplovitz, founder of USA Network and Syfy Channel
Larrry Busacca | Getty Images
Kay Koplovitz, founder of USA Network and Syfy Channel

And it might never have happened if it weren't for Arthur C. Clarke.

As a college student at the University of Wisconsin in the late '60s, Koplovitz attended a lecture by the science-fiction author on satellite technology and its future impact on communications. It was an area that had always intrigued her, and the talk helped her prepare the road map for her career.

"I was so captivated by the power of his message and the power of what these satellites could do," she said. "It was at the time of the Cold War and there was a Berlin Wall and Great Wall of China, both of which kept people out. ... I was very curious to be able to communicate with people behind the walls. Satellite signals could not be jammed like terrestrial signals could."

Building USA Network took some unique thinking. Drawing on her experience at Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) and the TV production she did in her college days, she ultimately came up with the revenue model the cable industry uses today.

In a nutshell, the model reversed the existing model in the broadcast industry. Rather than paying cable systems to carry programming, Koplovitz made them pay her. The network also retained advertising revenue, creating a dual-income stream that has become the norm for cable broadcasters.

Funding, though, was something of a challenge. There was no venture capital interest for this sort of company at the time, so Koplovitz convinced UA-Columbia Cablevision to put up $600,000 for the launch. Her relationship with UA-Columbia's president, Bob Rosencrans, her former boss, helped her snare the start-up funding. (The money was repaid the next year.)

"If Bob had not had confidence in me, I would not have had that opportunity," she said.

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Initially, the network aired just during nights and weekends, and it started with the goal of offering a live sporting event every night. Koplovitz quickly approached major sporting leagues to negotiate broadcast rights for their games. That first year, she sayid, MLB rights cost just $400,000.

In 1979 she began adding original programming, targeting children and stay-at-home moms, including cable's first live women's talk show, dubbed "Alive and Well." Three years later the network was on most, if not all, hours of the day.

Other than the initial funding hurdle, Koplovitz said, her biggest challenges in the early days of the network came not from securing programming but in dealing with the hardware limitations of the nascent cable companies.

"The challenge was getting companies to invest in the hardware they needed," she explained. "It was kind of the Wild West. It was very exhilarating and a lot of fun to do."

After Paramount and Time Inc. bought the company in 1981 for $30 million, it was then, she said, that she faced her biggest tests and defeats.

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Thinking ahead of the curve

"I fought to keep the sports in a separate network," she said. "They were not in the sports business. And they wanted to be in the entertainment business. I fought for more than a year to keep it, and I lost it. And now ESPN is the most valuable network out there today. But they didn't have the foresight."

Years later she negotiated a deal to buy the FNN (Financial News Network) cable channel. "I was literally sitting in the conference room at the Paramount office in Columbus Circle in New York when I got a call from MCA Universal saying they weren't going to do it," she said. "I knew that 24-hour financial news was going to be a very solid business. You didn't have to send people out around the world. You just needed desks, mainly in New York. I knew trading was going to go 24 hours. I could see it coming."

(CNBC ultimately bought the channel in 1991.)

In 1992 Koplovitz spearheaded the launch of the Sci-Fi Channel, utilizing a library of more than 3,000 hours of science fiction, fantasy and fantasy-horror programming to which USA had acquired the rights.

"People were thinking, Oh sci-fi; it's just a bunch of people running around with pocket protectors," she said. "And yeah, in the core, that's there, but there's a much broader viewer of what sci-fi is."

Today, USA Network is owned by NBCUniversal, a Comcast company (parent company of CNBC) that has an audience of 98.6 million people in the U.S. The channel is available from all major cable providers and can be accessed in roughly 86 percent of all homes with televisions around the country. Additionally, it has expanded much of its programming to a worldwide audience.

Koplovitz is no longer affiliated with either network, having moved on to launch a media advisory and investment firm. However, she noted, the world of broadcasting is in the midst of a revolution that's nearly as bold as the one she helped start, thanks to YouTube and other tools that allow people to self-broadcast.

"It's a vastly changing marketplace," she said. "When I started, there were barriers to entry. Today there are no barriers to entry, but ... the marketing is exceedingly difficult. It's a different business, but if you're a creator and you have great content as an individual, you have the opportunity to create something that can be leveraged."

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Lessons learned

Don't be afraid to reject the status quo and try something radically different.
If you're certain a future trend will be influential, follow that instinct and learn everything you can about it before it does. That way, when it hits, you'll be a trendsetter.
Push to the limits of your curiosity; you'll be surprised what you find.

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