Joel Wertman spent many years in the music business, including as president of Eureka Records, watching an industry struggle to adapt to the changing landscape brought on by the digital age and the internet.
Today as president of Reach High Media Group, a national distribution hub hosting programming provided to television affiliates in 221 cities around the United States, he sees a lot of similarities between the television world of today and the music world of the last 30 years or so.
While some TV studio executives are stuck in the past hoping to continue business as usual, Wertman likens the landscape to the Wild West with plenty of challenges, but also more than enough opportunities.
"If you can dream it and have the guts to make it happen, you can," he said.
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To that end, he has the Chattanooga-based company poised to increase the ways that its networks are available by adding more Over The Top options. Over The Top (OTT) refers to the devices found on the tops of your TVs such Roku and Apple TV, as opposed to Over The Air (OTA), which refers to digital antennas.
Wertman, who has been a songwriter and producer in addition to being a television writer for "Hart to Hart" and "Taxi," said the local media group is also poised to begin offering more original programming with all of it being sourced out of Chattanooga.
Reach High Media Group began as Luken Communications, a pioneer in the industry when it took over Retro TV, an OTA network that featured classic television content with most having originally aired in the '50s-'80s.
Founder Henry Luken saw an opportunity when the government dictated that all television stations convert to digital broadcasting in 2009. OTA stations were designed to air on the less powerful digital subchannels of television stations and targeted people without cable subscriptions. Part of its appeal was that it was free, and was somewhat considered a poor-man's brand of TV.
But as more and more stations have come online and the OTA broadcast quality has improved, coupled with cable's somewhat diminished quality caused by increased use of bandwidth and increased subscription costs, OTA stations have become more and more attractive, especially to people looking to save a dollar.
In fact, techcrunch.com reported a 2019 Nielsen survey found that 16 million, or about 14%, U.S. homes get the majority of their TV over the air using a digital antenna. That's an increase of 48% over the last eight years.
Not every OTA user does so exclusively, however. The same survey found that 9.4 million of those 16 million homes also have at least one subscription video service such as Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime Video.
Reach High Media Group features family-friendly programming on The Heartland Network, Retro TV, Rev'n, The Action Channel and The Family Channel. It reaches more than 50% of U.S. households and provides free content through a blend of over-the-air, cable, streaming and satellite television.
It plans to add subscription-based apps in the coming months and year.
Retro TV has been airing the popular classic soap opera "The Doctors" since 2014 and this month it began providing subscription-based access with extra programming related to the show. Fans who access through a paid app or through devices such as Roku will have on-demand access to the episodes, including early black-and-white shows, as well as new programming related to the Emmy Award-winning series, including interviews with cast and crew.
Reach High Media staff spent last week in New York interviewing several former cast members such as Kim Zimmer, Anna Stuart and Elizabeth Hubbard for the upcoming specials, according to National Communications Director Jennifer Crutchfield.
"It was amazing to hear these stories," Crutchfield said.
The popular soap opera featured a who's who of actors over its run, including Alec Baldwin, Kathleen Turner, Julia Duffy, Gil Gerard, Kathy Bates, Ellen Burston and Ted Danson. The show was set in the fictional New England town of Madision and Hope Memorial Hospital. Streaming audiences will have access to vintage commercials from the era as well as early black-and-white episodes of the series.
* “More Than the Music” — Host Stacy Newman travels the country in addition to talking guests in the local studio including performers such as John Carter Cash, Randy and Mary Travis and Mitch Ryder.
* “The Unseen World” — The travel and adventure series has taken viewers to such places as Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden, Corpsewood Manor and the Flatwoods Monster Museum.
* “Morning Beats” — Hosted by Ashley Larsen, the morning show will highlight everything from fitness and health to art, books, movies, movies and lifestyle trends.
Wertman said the streaming option gives fans the ability to "watch, share and interact with the programming that they love in all new ways." These include having real-time dialogues online with other fans and participating in real-time trivia games, for example.
Wertman said that the company is poised to compete with the big boys, such as the CBS's and NBC's of the world, in the future.
"It's a multi-platform business today and some guys can't see the trees for the forest. It's a level playing field right now."
Reach High Media takes up two floors of a four-story building on 8th Street that includes studios, a control room where engineer Brian Green monitors the feeds that go out to the 221 affiliates in 135 markets, and several rooms full of old and new equipment, including 70 new antennas that will be installed around the country over the coming months.
While the new original programs will be sourced out of the Chattanooga, their content and reach will be national.
"More Than the Music" host Stacy Newman's first interview was with Kevin Costner on location during shooting of his popular series "Yellowstone." She's done other interviews in Nashville and earlier this year she was at Mayo's Bar and Grille on Brainerd Road interviewing local singer and songwriter Roger Alan Wade, the Outlaw Country Sirius Satellite co-host.
Wade chose the location because it's where he'd written many of his hits such as "If You're Gonna Be Dumb (You Gotta Be Tough)" and "Fryin' Bacon Nekkid," both of which have been featured in Hollywood films and on television shows.
He told Newman that he found the inspiration for both songs written on the men's room walls.
"I wish I had made them up, but I stole them," he said.
Newman, like "Morning Beats" host Ashley Larsen, echoed Wertman's assertion that the can-do attitude is what makes the working at Reach High exciting.
"I'm not sure the Wild West is the right analogy, but it is definitely about being able to dream it up and make it work," Larsen said.
"It's exciting to be part of this."
Wertman said there are advantages and disadvantages to being located in Chattanooga. The city's gig technology, for example, is helpful, but the city is lacking in people skilled at producing high quality television programming, but he could see that changing as Reach High Media grows, he said.
"We could become that lightning rod, or that attraction for creative people. Creative people tend to bandy to other creative people."
He said the keys to being successful are content and distribution, "and they go hand in hand."
It is a tough, competitive market place for everyone in the industry right now, he said, but he believes it will "eventually carve itself down" and that his plan is to have Reach High in position to move forward whichever platform comes out on top.
"I think we are in a pretty good position because we are open to everything."
Contact Barry Courter at email@example.com or 423-757-6354.
* Heartland — Featuring syndicated and first-run shows as well as digitally restored content from Music Row in Nashville, the network provides shows such as “Coffee, Country & Cody,” “The Red Green Show and “More Than the Music” (See above).
* Rev’n — If it involves cars, trucks, motorcycles, boats, ATVs, snowmobiles, events, auctions, or just about anything else with a motor, Rev’n showcases it. Shows includes “Two Guys Garage, “Truck U,” Sam’s Garage” and “My Classic Car.”
* Retro TV — The country’s first digital broadcast network, it features vintage comedies such as “The Lucy Show,” “The Ray Bradbury Theater” and “The joey Bishop Show,” but also classic dramas such as “Doctor Who,” “Route 66” and “The Doctors.”
* The Action Channel” — As the name implies, the network focuses on the adrenaline junkie with programming about outdoor adventures. Shows include “Ghostbreakers,” “Studio D,” “Motorz” and “Armed Forces Boxing.”
* The Family Channel — Programming is both education and entertaining with shows such as “Real Green, ” “Designing Spaces” and “The Hollywood News Report.”