Surf Channel hopes to make waves

The upcoming Surf Channel sent several videographers to the U.S. Open of Surfing last week, but whether they will broadcast live surfing events is still up in the air. Sean Rowland/ASP via Getty Images

As migrating spectators kicked up a dust cloud that hung above the retail tents along the main concourse at last week's US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach., Calif., the energy of surfing's popularity surged more than the lackluster swell. But from Steve Bellamy's perch, the founder and CEO of the Ski and Tennis Channels believes that elsewhere in the world the surfing community is underserved. To rectify that, Bellamy announced during the Open that his latest project, the Surf Channel, would debut in September.

"My desire to create the channel was born out of the fact that the category is so broad [and] impacts so many people," Bellamy said. "I felt I could do a lot for surfing with my television acumen."

Surf Channel -- which is presently short on specifics such as a launch date and programming lineup -- aims to cater to an audience that often relies entirely on the Internet for its multimedia fix. Bellamy said beginning with distribution is key.

"It starts with getting on those big cable, satellite, telco operators. It's hard to get on those platforms...you're competing with gigantic media companies for [limited] bandwidth," he said.

Bellamy's prior television endeavors made reaching those platforms easier his third time around. Cox Communications and DirecTV are preparing to air Surf Channel next month as an on-demand sports option. Surf Channel will not occupy a fixed channel slot. Comcast and Dish Network are also reportedly on board. Once the logistics are enabled, Bellamy asserts, "then it becomes all about the content."

Surf Channel's content will hinge mostly on movies, combined with original programming. He pointed to the ski film "Winter" featuring Simon Dumont, Rory Bushfield, and the late Sarah Burke as an example of the style of Surf Channel's eventual proprietary content.

"We are very big into character development and story," said Bellamy.

Surf Channel began content production 18 months ago, but a bulk of the content on the channel will come from airing surf movies. To date, Bruce Brown's 1964 seminal film "The Endless Summer" is the only title that has been announced and will be the inaugural Surf Channel feature.

Surf Channel contends it will reach 20 million households -- a figure said to account for the collective number of subscribers to each of the cable companies involved. That figure varies, and could not be immediately corroborated. A spokesman for Cox claimed "approximately 6 million residential and business" phone, video and Internet customers; DirecTV claimed 19.9 million.

"In terms of someone actually watching it, those numbers take a long time to get," said Bellamy. "You don't just walk in and have the whole audience."

Surfing as a televised commodity has a history stocked with efforts to expand its range. Mike Latronic entered the surfing media business in the early 1990s, collaborating with the late Mark Foo to create H30, which centered around surfing's epicenter: Oahu's North Shore. A surfer, publisher and executive producer at Manulele Incorporated, Latronic maintains that despite the emergence of surfing as a mainstream attraction, television success is elusive.

"It's a hard fought battle to get your show accepted by a broadcaster," Latronic said.

Surf Channel is an easier sell as an on-demand channel. Before its renovation into a UFC hub, FuelTV was the chief action sports cable destination nationally, but abandoned that model following sagging ratings (which have since skyrocketed on the popularity of UFC). But unlike FuelTV, which had to fill time slots 24/7, viewers will be able to access Surf Channel without suffering incessant reruns or sports not interesting them.

"You've got choices. You don't have to watch whatever they're giving you, you can pick what you want," said Latronic, who has been producing content for Surf Channel.

Word of Surf Channel's pending launch has surfaced right as speculation over the restructuring of the Association of Surfing Professionals' media rights continues to heighten. The ASP's board convened in Huntington Beach during the US Open to discuss various matters. A new media deal was not struck, although sources suggest the ASP may reach a conclusion by September. Surf Channel has demonstrated an interest in re-airing contests and highlights.

"The ASP has had casual discussions with Steve Bellamy and the Surf Channel for well over a year regarding possible partnerships in the future," ASP media director Dave Prodan told ESPN. "However, no formal
discussions have been had nor official plans tabled." Prodan also noted that if a singular platform were to be activated, the ASP would consider all partners and proposals.

Currently, contest sponsors and licensees dictate the distribution of related media, and Surf Channel has spoken to the major brands about taking footage of the events to television. Quiksilver confirmed they've spoken to Bellamy, but offered no details. An arrangement to broadcast live events, however, is not an immediate possibility. Said Bellamy: "If there was a way we could add value to that equation, we would do that in a heartbeat."

The reality is that surfing coverage pervades predominantly online. So Surf Channel has approached Filmon.com and created a partnership with YouTube to generate funding through video advertising. YouTube generally cuts more sophisticated deals with corporate entities than it does with individual users; deals sometime include revenue advances based upon anticipated advertising dollars. Surf Channel has already posted several video interviews from the US Open with the likes of pros Granger Larsen and Laura Enever. Advertising support will be crucial to the Surf Channel, which Bellamy insists will not rely on user fees or deep-pocketed investors. The channel's operating budget has not been revealed.

Surf Channel sent a large contingent of seven camera crews to the US Open site, however Bellamy insists Surf Channel is taking a slow entry into the arena in order to aggravate as few surfers as possible. "We're trying to integrate into surfing without upsetting the apple cart," he said.

The development of Surf Channel will play out soon enough. An announcement detailing its programming lineup is expected early next month. In the meantime, Bellamy is proceeding with a simple objective in mind: "Our goal is not to have all the surfers hate us."