Sunday, July 16, 2006

Fred Thomas talks about MHz Networks

MHz Networks is an independent, noncommercial, television network broadcasting newscasts and entertainment from around the world. It includes WNVC and WNVT in Northern Virginia, two TV stations in Charlottesville and two TV stations and a radio station in Richmond. I talked with Fred Thomas, General Manager and Chief Content Officer, about the network and its mission.

Previous to coming to MHz Networks, Thomas had been running a community cable channel. In 1993, he came to MHz Networks originally for a few months and decided to stay, because he saw a chance to make a difference.

WNVC was created to provide a political link between Northern Virginia and the rest of the state. The signal from WNVT (a station that provides educational programming for local schools) was not strong enough, so a second license was granted.

I asked how MHz negotiated the deals to be on DirectTV and Dish TV. Thomas said the explosion of technology offered new ways to get video content to viewers, and it was MHz’s challenge to find ways to use the new opportunities. The network has hired someone to develop a feed for iPods and iTunes and hopes to have that available in six months.

MHz describes itself as an independent public network and has what Thomas described as an “independent attitude.” It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation headquartered in Richmond, VA. I asked if independent meant that MHz was independent from PBS and why that mattered. Thomas replied that PBS is a network like any other, has little flexibility, and that the “local guys are in a needy position.”

Thomas said that programming decisions are driven by a combination of factors. MHz seeks geographical balance and diversity, but seeks newscasts that are in English or with English subtitles. Entertainment is selected on a similar basis. MHz has a representative in Australia, who negotiates for Water Rats and Australian Rules Football. He said it was difficult to find programming from Latin America, because the Spanish language media is well developed in the U.S., so there is great competition for programming. Also there is less willingness to provide English language or English subtitled programming. Asian and European media understand the value of having a presence in the Washington, DC market and are willing to provide English language services.

I told Thomas how affected I was by BeauSoleil’s post-Katrina performance and asked how performers were selected. Thomas said that MHz Presents is run by a part-time producer who tries to catch acts as they come to the DC area.

Thomas said that MHz’s partnership with the Wilson Center was made possible by mutual friends, including Lee Hamilton. He said it was great, because it gave MHz access to facilities in the Ronald Reagan Center.

According to Media Audit, MHz has an audience of approximately half a million viewers a week. Thomas is encouraged by the fact that since 2001 membership has quadrupled. (Editors who think Americans are not interested in international news should take note of this.)

Soon, MHz programming will be available nationwide through MHz WorldView and an agreement with GlobalCast. San Francisco will be WorldView’s first market outside of Washington, DC. National distribution has always been MHz’s goal. It was accelerated by viewers who moved out of the DC area and wanted the service. Technological advances have facilitated this, as it is not much additional cost to send the programming through a digital feed from a server.

I asked Thomas how MHz develops relationships with the community. He said that it was mostly word of mouth as community leaders discovered the opportunity to broadcast their programs. Thomas said MHz has become “more picky” now that more programming is available.

I asked if Africa This Week was exclusive to MHz, and Thomas said it was.

I asked Thomas about the problem of dealing with nations who do not share MHz’s commitment to open dialog. He said that any other nation was going to have a different point of view from America. I replied that that was certainly true, but it is one thing to have a broadcast from France or Germany, where the newscast is reflecting their internal debates, and another thing entirely to have a broadcast from China. Thomas reminded me that MHz is a presenter of content and that each foreign newscast begins and ends with a tag that reminds the audience that it is unedited and does not necessarily reflect the views of MHz. However, MHz does monitor programming and has translators who check on content. There have been occasions when they have pointed out to foreign newscasts that certain things would not play with an American audience. Thomas also pointed out that they have programming from Taiwan as well, and that the two watch each other, so MHz promotes an indirect dialog.

I asked if their viewers don’t catch things from time to time, and Thomas simply laughed. “No one is better than a Washington audience for telling you about every nuance” of a newscast.

I asked about South Asia Newsline, which, while excellent, is from an Indian point of view. Thomas said they are working very hard to get programming from Pakistan but were unable to find anything beyond some weekend programming. However, he has some excellent news; starting this fall South Asia Newsline will be offering Afghan Report. Given Afghanistan’s key role in the world today, this is one program sure to be eagerly anticipated.

Thomas concluded by saying that it was MHz’s goal, “particularly through its new national channel, to present the world for all that it is, and that it is a pretty good place. MHz takes a positive view of the world and between newscasts, lets people know all the good things that are going on.”

MHz has certainly offered this viewer a great deal of information, news, cultural insight, performing arts, and local community programming that would be available in no other way. I would describe MHz’s viewers as the eclectic elite. We are a yeasty mix of professionals, entrepreneurs, civil servants, military families, foreign diplomats, immigrants, international civil servants (World Bank, IMF, OAS, etc.), academics, think tank Fellows, and the intellectually curious, the well-traveled and the want-to-be well-traveled. This is an audience that is influential on many levels. If you are interested in reaching such an audience, underwriting information is here.


Elizabeth Foxwell said...

I really miss MHZ's broadcasting of the Australian police procedural drama _Murder Call_.

Fairfax Public Access's WEBR and WRLD (and Channel 30) also offer programs with an international flavor:

Alice said...

That's good to know.