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ME TV, replugged

Austin music station cuts costs, finds fresh revenue

Chad Swiatecki
ME Television plans to film two hours of new content a week at its new headquarters. Its 6,000 hours of archived footage will be offered for global distribution.

Here's how bad things got over the summer at Austin music station ME Television: There was so much red ink flowing that new general manager Neil Hand often couldn't justify the cost of firing up and staffing the 1,600-square-foot studio on South Congress Avenue used to film interviews and live performances.

"Every time I fired up that studio, I had to reconfigure the entire place and all of its cameras, and the expense of doing that when there wasn't money coming in to support it made that hard to do," said Hand, who joined the station earlier this year. "It was a big space, but it just wasn't right for the operation, so it became obvious we needed to get to a new location and change the business of what the station is going to be."

That goal is coming to fruition in the form of a new and considerably more cozy studio space in a warehouse at the Austin Studios film complex near the former Mueller Airport. A 700-square-foot space that's ready for regular filming starting in January , it adjoins a small office space and a much larger performance area that will be used to host and film occasional special events.

The move to a smaller, less expensive space and an overhaul of the channel's business plan already has started turning things around. This fall it started running in the black for the first time in years. Hand said its expenses are now about one-fifth what they had been — rent at the South Congress location was roughly $14,000 a month at the time they left — and a number of signed and in-process distribution deals with cable networks to broadcast some of ME TV's 6,000 hours of archived content will bring in new revenue streams.

"The previous goal had been to grow the channel into a national presence and succeed through being in front of more and more people," said Hand, who spent more than 20 years in marketing and product development for Dell, Epson and other technology firms. "I said instead let's focus on creative work that showcases everything Texas music has to offer and then find ways for other people to put that out all over the world."

If Hand and the staff in place can make that plan work, it will bring order and success to a channel that has been dogged by financial and business model problems almost since it was spun off from the publicly funded Austin Music Network in 2005.

Featuring a mix of music videos from local and national artists, live performances and interviews, the channel earned a lot of fans in the Austin music scene because of its support of local bands and its ability to document what was going on around the city.

Financial problems were almost constant, though, and in August 2008 management reduced its staff from more than 30 employees to just the handful needed to keep it broadcasting on Time Warner Cable. Hand, a friend and colleague of ME TV CEO Kevin Kettler, came on board in the spring to try to revamp the station that many stakeholders in the Austin music scene thought was set to close its doors.

ME TV is still owned by the same core group of roughly a dozen investors who funded the channel at its launch, and Hand said the move to Austin Studios was enthusiastically supported because of the savings it offers. The array of film- and music-related tenants on site also was seen as a benefit because of potential partnerships in the future.

"I was here in the early days when so much energy was focused on filling as many hours as possible with original programming, without much thought as to what kind of revenue was going to come from every piece of footage we shot," said Kettler, who was an early investor in the station. "The good thing is that all that work created a huge amount of footage we own and that we're finding out people all over the world want to see because they know of the reputation Austin has for music."

In addition to distribution deals for existing and new content — early plans include two hours of new content a week, eventually more — Kettler said the channel will use its filming and editing capabilities to serve as an à la carte video production facility for recording artists.

While the channel still largely will operate as a video jukebox of sorts, Hand said he'd like to organize and format blocks of time around particular genres, and said there are plans to incorporate Austin-generated short films and entertainment programming into the mix.

Whatever the finished product looks like, many Austin musicians and scene supporters are glad to know ME TV looks to have many days ahead.

"They helped us a lot over the years with interviews and coming out to film our shows, and a lot of people would come up to me at shows years later saying they first saw us on ME TV," said Beto Martinez, guitar player for the Austin Latin funk band Grupo Fantasma. "I was aware of the uncertainty about it, and I was worried we might lose it. I hope they keep the local flavor they had and don't become a place that's only showing videos by bands from all over the place."

Much like what the Austin Music Network was originally created for in the early '90s, many Austin business leaders and public officials see ME TV as a unique way to market Austin music and hope its new approach can keep it afloat for the long term.

"They were bleeding so much money before and were so thin on personnel ... but it seems they've been diligent in cutting their costs, and they've got a good new deal with the new location," said Brad Stein, chair of the Austin Music Commission. "Six months ago it didn't look like they were going to get a new contract with Time Warner, and I'd have said we were in real danger of losing it. Since then they've gotten in a good place, everything seems to be moving in a positive direction and I'm optimistic."

cswiatecki@statesman.com