There is a network that often draw more viewers than The CW and Telemundo in any given week – and yet, it has the lowest profile of any major network.
And Ion likes it that way.
Ion Media is one of the beneficiaries of the recent FCC action of raising the national cap from 39 percent to 78 percent, by restoring the UHF discount. The network’s strategy? Purchasing reruns of procedural dramas (such as Blue Bloods, Law & Order, Criminal Minds, etc.) for little cost and “checkerboard” them (a different show each day) in a “binge” format (airing episodes continuously.) Given its large number of UHF stations it owns (if you count originally from the analog era), Ion was a big proponent of having the UHF discount reinstated after it was yanked by former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler last year.
Ion rose from the ashes of the unsuccessful PAX network, which launched in 1998 under Lowell W. “Bud” Paxson, a former West Palm Beach television and radio station owner and born-again Christian in order to launch a family-friendly and religious-based network consisting mainly of off-network shows. Pax quickly bought up stations across the country, including former religious outlet WCFC-TV Channel 38 here (now WCPX, whose calls were once held by the CBS affiliate in Orlando, now WKMG.) The ministry moved its programming to cable via the newly-launched Total Living Network.
After being sued by NBC over its investment in the network, Pax went under some tumultuous years, resulting in the departure of Paxson as CEO in 2006 and replaced by Brandon Burgess, who remains there today. Pax became Ion Media Networks a year later, and changed its programming format in 2008, dropping the family-friendly fare for more mainstream programming while rebranding the network as Ion (the first rebrand was known as “i”, from 2005-07.) Ion’s been through bankruptcy twice, the last time in 2009.
Ion is unusual in a way it operates – like Pax, it doesn’t air syndicated programming in a traditional manner – instead, it operates under a 126-hour weekly schedule filled with mostly procedural dramas while scheduling infomercials and religious programming overnight, a holdover from the Pax days (you haven’t lived if you’ve never seen “Camp Meeting”.) While Ion stations air very little local fare and virtually no news, the station does air some original shows, such as Canadian import Saving Hope and has aired off-cable fare not seen on other broadcast stations, such as Men Of A Certain Age and Psych. I guess you can say Ion is a “cable network on a broadcast channel.”
With a straightened out balance sheet, Ion is financially healthy again, and is seeking more stations. In an interview with Broadcasting & Cable this week, Burgess talked about how his station is planning to expand under the new rules.
“We like the broadcast business, that much is pretty obvious”, Burgress told B&C. “And we are buyers, not sellers, so I think you’ll see us do more of that.”
Ion currently owns 60 stations and reaches 93 million homes, through other affiliate agreements. Ion also has Eastern and Pacific network feeds available on DirecTV and Dish, in addition to the local affiliate (oddly, WCPX is not available in HD over DirecTV while the Eastern feed is.)
There are some holes in Ion’s distribution lineup – as noted by Wikipedia, Ion doesn’t have affiliates in San Diego (former CW station XETV opted to become an affiliate of Mexico’s Canal 5 instead), Cincinnati, Toledo, Baltimore, and doesn’t own its affiliate in Charlotte, instead opting for a position on a digital subchannel on the market’s Fox-owned station. Recently, Ion purchased a St. Louis station out of a bankruptcy trust and also made acquisitions in Boise and Columbia, S.C.
Its O&Os operates several in-house digital subchannels: Qubo, Ion Life, Ion Shop, and the over-the-air feeds of QVC and HSN (Paxson once operated numerous home shopping channels.)
While you can say Ion doesn’t really contribute anything to broadcasting given its rerun schedule (Ion isn’t exactly a destination for genre TV fans or people who care for quality TV), it does draw viewers – during a week in March, Ion tied UniMas in the 18-49 demo and came within a point of beating The CW. It also drew more viewers than The CW in households. In the past, Ion fare drew household ratings around 1.5 for WCPX, and the station draws decent advertising despite its low profile.
But don’t look for Ion to toot its own horn as the network continues to stay on the down low. And that’s fine with Ion.