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Going for broke Add to ...

From Report on Small Business magazine, Nov. 26, 2008

In a corner of the office Jeffrey Elliott and Raja Khanna share at GlassBox Television sits the one thing on which they just can't agree: a set of aging, brown corduroy couches. The two entrepreneurs, who teamed up this summer as co-CEOs of the upstart broadcasting company, are in sync on the big issues - how the TV business is in a profound state of flux as broadcasters either embrace or fortify themselves against the Internet; how teenagers who've abandoned TV for the Web can be lured back with the right content; and how, in the wake of massive industry consolidation, a small, independent channel can still wedge itself in among the networks. But the couches are a sticking point. Khanna wants them gone; Elliott loves them like a Labrador retriever.

"I'm the one who pushed for this funky concrete look," Khanna laments, referring to the company's spartan-chic, open-concept office inside a squat industrial building in Mississauga. "We're totally simpatico on everything, but he pulled rank on that."

Elliott carries some extra sway because he is, after all, the founder-a married guy with a kid and a mortgage who left a well-paying job at Alliance Atlantis Communications to spend the next "four years, 16 days and one hour" unemployed as he struggled to get GlassBox off the ground. When his brainchild, Bite TV, finally went on air in the spring of 2005, it wasn't much to look at: rough, edgy, sometimes juvenile programming made by young, amateur comedians, musicians and talk-show hosts. Part of a sea of specialty channels on the upper end of the digital dial, Bite had one major distinction, however: It offered most of its content online and for download to cellphones, hoping to reach its audience of 18- to 34-year-old men through whichever medium they preferred.

Since then, Bite TV has amassed a respectable 140,000 subscribers, but the partners are convinced they can do a lot better. A channel-clicker tour suggests why: Television today is packed with people vying for fame, or at least notoriety. The GlassBox CEOs believe that somewhere between the high glitz of Canadian Idol and the low-brow grit of online webcasters exists a place for a station that blends the two. "There are various steps in between YouTube and a big network," says Khanna. "And the next step for a 20-year-old who's been doing a show out of his parents' garage is probably not a prime-time talk show on CTV. There's a gap there." So, this fall, the duo is expanding Bite's show roster and adding a second channel, Aux TV, dedicated to garage bands starved for attention. Everything on both channels will be created by amateurs and available online. "What Raj and I are making is the new kind of broadcasting company," says Elliott.

Most people acquainted with the cutthroat TV business are bound to scoff at such preposterous ambition. After all, small broadcasters' odds of succeeding get longer every year. The number of specialty channels has increased tenfold in the past decade, even as the Internet lures viewers away. "If you look at the lineup of a typical satellite or cable TV provider, it's getting longer and longer," says Kaan Yigit, an analyst with Solutions Research Group, a Toronto consultancy. "Niche players are at a disadvantage: People don't know where to find you."

But Elliott and Khanna hold an edge. This summer, they got an endorsement-and a $5-million cheque-from a group of media power-brokers who've agreed to come on board with advice and industry connections. The blue-chip list includes Gary Slaight, former CEO of Standard Broadcasting; Jay Switzer, who used to run CHUM; Ted Riley, former head of TV distribution at Alliance Atlantis; and Stephen Tapp, who until last year was president of satellite radio start-up XM Canada. Drawn in part by Khanna's stellar rep in new-media ventures, they plan to help the partners test their theories about where TV is heading. "What [the investors]share is a sense that this is a new world," says Switzer. "Other people see challenges. We see opportunity."

One floor below the CEOs' office, in the darkened bowels of the building, Matt Chin, a 22-year-old with aspirations to be the next David Letterman, is in full talk-show-host mode. "Hey, everybody, Matt Chin here!" There's no one else in the room, no studio audience, no TV execs keeping watch. But The Week Show with Matt Chin, which involves Chin doing stand-up and sketch comedy he writes himself, is one of Bite TV's most popular shows.

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