As a media executive and owner of television studios, Michael Fletcher has been pitched some ideas before. Like the one from a local preacher who wanted to bust prostitutes and drug dealers – on air – and urge them to come to God.
“I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea to bust in on drug dealers,” Fletcher recalls. “Because, you know, you’re a preacher. You’re not a cop.”
So Fletcher wasn’t amped up when an intermediary arranged a meeting three years ago with Craig Morris, a National Cutting Horse Association Hall of Famer who rode One Smart Lookin Cat to victory in the 2003 NCHA Futurity and had $2 million in career winnings.
And an idea. Morris showed up to the meeting in dusty boots, jeans and spurs and plopped down on Fletcher’s new white sofa. The pitch: Morris, 46, already had a show, Rode to the Winner’s Circle, but it was on another network that charged content producers for air time and forced them to shape their shows like infomercials, and he wanted to do more with it.
“The more I listened, the more I thought there might be enough to do a 24/7 network,” Fletcher, 58, says of his first impressions, beyond his concern for the couch.
It’d be a network aimed at horse people and focusing on lifestyles, the foodie version of FOOD Network.
The challenge: figuring out a way to turn the idea into money. Fletcher says the two spent the next three or four months looking into the industry and market.
Then, “we went for it, developed a business plan, started raising capital,” he said.
Three years later, RIDE TV, a 24-hour high-definition network, has quietly launched from an unpretentious, historic four-story building on Fort Worth’s Near Southside, leasing parking from a dollar store and another lot across the street to accommodate its anticipated growth.
In mid-October, RIDE secured its first cable distribution deal and began appearing in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. It’s entering Maryland through the same cable company, and secured another deal to enter Nebraska in the first quarter, Fletcher says. RIDE also is available nationally on the KlowdTV internet subscription streaming service.
And he and Morris confirmed RIDE has signed a contract with Verizon and is aiming for a national distribution deal.
“During the next three months, we’ll be able to say how widely available it will be,” Fletcher said. Options include Verizon’s internet service and FiOS fiber-optic network.
Within the next 12 months, RIDE is “going to be very widely available” nationally on cable or satellite, or both, he said.
The network’s stable of content includes eight original shows it’s producing and owns, including Saddle Up with Jay Novacek, a horseman, Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl-champion tight end and minority partner in the network.
The touted lineup promises much more than infomercials: Famous horses (This Old Horse), mounted shooting, horses engaged in equine therapy (Horses That Heal), funny horse mishaps (Swamp Donkey), a show (Rock Star Vets) about a “brilliant equine surgeon who can drink more tequila than any person vertical,” ranch properties for sale and shown by Cowboy Realtor Johnny and city Realtor Natalie, and a children’s show featuring an animal artist who uses drawing to tell stories round out RIDE’s opening lineup.
Not beholden to the traditional content model, where trainers pay for airtime (Morris estimates he was spending $90,000-$100,000 a year for air time), Fletcher says RIDE TV can focus on lifestyle programming.
“What was missing (from the traditional content model) was the lifestyle, all the stories about interesting people and how they live,” Fletcher says.
The network has raised capital in multiple rounds. Fletcher and Morris aren’t disclosing how much, but Fletcher says it’s “millions and millions of dollars that are essential to grow this company and take it to profitability.”
The company has a total 26 investors who include Chairman Kenneth Jones, a longtime Fort Worth attorney and financier; and Tom Moncrief and Jay Meadows of Fort Worth.
And the billionaire John Paul DeJoria, co-founder of the Paul Mitchell line of hair care products and Patron Spirits, has come on board as a major partner, committing early and letting Fletcher and Morris use his name to secure more capital, Fletcher says. DeJoria will headline an official invitation-only launch party Nov. 21 in the Fort Worth Stockyards.
The courting of DeJoria was two years in the making, and began when a RIDE TV was shooting DeJoria and his wife for Horses That Heal.
Leaving the shoot, standing in the dirt with the horses, Fletcher says, “he asked if we had raised all our money.”
DeJoria promised he’d come on as a major investor when RIDE had secured initial distribution, Fletcher says, which finally occurred this summer.
“We agreed with the board and shareholders not to launch until viable,” Fletcher says.
RIDE began talking to cable and satellite companies in June 2013, and the response was good, Fletcher and Morris said.
They said they will enter distribution agreements with cable and satellite operators selectively, insisting on receiving per-subscriber fees, typically 3 to 10 cents per home subscribed monthly, a lucrative revenue source.
“A lot of new channels give that up,” Fletcher says. “We’ve been offered distribution if we give it up for free,” but RIDE has declined.
Viewers who want to watch RIDE on Klowd pay a $4.95 monthly fee to subscribe to Klowd, and then can either choose RIDE a la carte at $2, or buy it in a broader sports package for $2.98.
RIDE has hired an ad agency and is beginning to attract interest from advertisers, but the next selling cycle won’t open until the spring, and the focus will be on 2016 spending, Fletcher and Morris said.
“Right now, we’re getting scatter dollars,” money left over from current advertising budgets, Fletcher said.
At some point, RIDE will begin selling branded merchandise, he said. “We are going to be profitable in year 2, in 2016,” he predicted.
And in the future, while RIDE grows domestically, it will also look to international markets, where horses are popular, Fletcher and Morris said.
“We’re going to be able to take the channel international,” Morris said.
RIDE is the latest media venture in 25 years for Fletcher, who founded Studios 121 in Fort Worth, a TV production studio and satellite uplink facility. Fletcher, who sold his equity in 2014, also launched the Hispanic children’s cable network Sorpresa and purchased, repackaged and sold the music Soundtrack Channel.
But the demographics of the wealthy fast-growing horse audience, which piles into Fort Worth for shows every month, were attractive.
The company quotes U.S. Horse Council statistics on the $102 billion horse lifestyle market, including one in 63 Americans interact with horses every day and tens of millions participate annually as owners or spectators.
Getting the word out hasn’t been difficult.
“First thing we did was contact all the different equine organizations,” Morris said. “There are over one million identifiable members in the top 10 organizations in the U.S.”
RIDE is working on establishing relationships with actors in old westerns who live locally, like Buck Taylor of Gunsmoke fame. “For some reason, a lot of old actors live in Fort Worth,” Fletcher says.
While the ex-Cowboy Novacek is the perhaps the only highly recognizable most notable face of the network today, Fletcher and Morris predict the hosts of some of their shows could take on a higher profile by appearing on the network.
“We’re going to make some stars out of some people nobody has ever heard of before,” Morris said.
Beyond its owned programming, RIDE is working on acquiring other popular shows. It’s working on acquiring old western movies and TV shows and converting them to high-definition.
The company is leasing and restoring a 16,000-square-foot building at West Rosedale Street and South Jennings Avenue as its headquarters and studios.
The company today has 10 employees. “Which doesn’t sound like a lot, except a month ago, we had three,” Fletcher jokes.
Four of those were in production and three in operations, and including an engineer, on-air talent, vice president of operations, administrative assistant and a chief financial officer.
It expects to grow to 30 by year-end, and ultimately 100, Fletcher says.
“We’ve got at least five new positions we’d like to hire today,” he said.