How to Build a Cable Network (With a Little Help From El Rey)

By  · Published on August 20th, 2014

There’s a beauty of convenience in modern cable TV. Sure, the average cable package contains roughly 659,000 channels, but that’s also more or less a guarantee that if you want to watch something, there’s a channel somewhere that carries it (and besides, you’ve got to pay for all 659,000 to get the one Orangutan Reality Network you’re actually interested in, so you might is well enjoy the excess).

El Rey is one such niche network. Launched by Robert Rodriguez in December of last year, El Rey is basically a collection of shows and films given Rodriguez’ person “yes, this is cool” seal of approval. Or, at least it was last year. Now, a half a year or so into its youth, El Rey has begun the molting process, and is starting to look like a bona fide cable channel, picking up original series and adding new voices alongside Rodriguez to dole out the approvals of cool.

One such new show would be Matador, which follows DEA agent Tony Bravo (Gabriel Luna), posing undercover as a pro soccer player to bust a team owner (Alfred Molina) who may or may not be some kind of large-scale supervillain.

Rodriguez filmed the Matador finale last week, and I was there, to loiter around the set and learn the ins and outs of El Rey’s cable TV journey from Rodriguez, Luna, and Matador creator/executive producer Roberto Orci. And I will detail those ins and outs to you, in case you have the urge to start a cable channel of your own (if someone wants to spearhead the Orangutan Reality Network, I’d be all for it).

Have a Strong Mission Statement

El Rey might give off a certain impression, that it’s exclusively for bros, dudes, and aficionados of the separation of head and torso. But behind the machismo (even the 404 page on El Rey’s website includes the words “damn,” “mayhem,” “gore” and “badassery”), there’s a broader media goal. Rodriguez explains it best:

“I had always wanted to do something kind of like what I’d done in cinema, a Hispanic presence in front of and behind the camera, without calling attention to it… I thought a television network would be the next step to discover new talent, new voices, more diversity. To have a network that really, more reflected the face of the country, but with an eye towards making entertainment that anybody could watch. You know, in the same way you don’t think of Spy Kids or Desperado, Sin City, as Latin films. They are, but you don’t think of them that way, because everybody can enjoy them. That was sort of the idea for the network.”

It’s an idea no one’s really had before. TV has its BETs, its Telemundos, but in those cases the content is aimed squarely at people who look like the people onscreen. Pushing for TV made specifically by Latin people but not for Latin people (well, technically it is, but it’s also for everybody else) makes the TV landscape more diverse. But it does so without the odd segregating effect that can sometimes come from building a network around a particular culture. And yes, those cultures still deserve to have channels to themselves, but they can have those and still share with the rest of us.

Given that it still becomes headline news when a superhero who’s white on the comic page turns a shade or two darker in live-action, there’s still some work to be done on the TV/movie diversity front. A channel that pushes for its content to look like the population of the US (but without beating you over the head with it) is a step in the right direction.

Oh, and it’s also a step towards wheelbarrows full of cash. Because as Orci explains, diversity gives you a far wider audience, and thus a far wider base of people who will give you money in exchange for your goods and services.

“The business itself, Hollywood itself, has come to realize that it’s not an affirmative action program to have diverse characters. It’s good business! It represents the country and the world. So suddenly, the studios aren’t casting diverse characters because they’re trying to be decent people- not that they’re trying to be evil, ever- but they’re a business. And so now, I think everyone finally gets it, that having diverse characters is good for the bottom line.”

It’s what El Rey is building towards in the future- Rodriguez is already on the hunt for “diverse directors” to push new content, and the creative process they have now is a united front.

“It unifies things,” adds Luna, who describes the impact of a channel based around Latin heroes (also Latin villains, Latin Texas lawmen, Latin space dinosaurs, etc.). “Divine willing, [we] keep opportunities available for others, just to see that someone like me can do the job and be bankable doing it. All that does is keep the door open, that Bob [Orci] and Robert [Rodriguez] and all these guys opened for us.”

When starting your own network, a focus on diverse cast and crew can work wonders. But you don’t get to count it as your grand mission statement, because El Rey clearly has dibs.

El Rey Network

Unify Your Content

Everything shown on El Rey falls under a unified banner of duuuuuuude, but there are more eloquent ways of stating that. Here’s Luna: “If you were to consider what our brand is, it’s ‘badass.’” Then, Rodriguez: “kick ass, visceral content that just has diversity ingrained into the shows.”

Given what’s airing on El Rey right now, that sounds about right. El Rey has three original series currently on the air- Matador, the TV-ified version of Rodriguez’ From Dusk Till Dawn, and The Director’s Chair, in which Rodriguez hosts one-on-one interviews with filmmakers (but only those who qualify as kick ass, badass, or any other any other combination of a prefix and “ass”). So far, guests include John Carpenter, Guillermo del Toro and Quentin Tarantino.

The original series are peppered in amongst re-runs of Starsky and Hutch, The X-Files, and a collection of cult action/horror/kung fu flicks (here’s Rodriguez once more: “There’s the difference between a ‘bad’ bad movie and a good- what people consider a bad movie- are actually really great movies. Sometimes the best movies.”)

Naturally, as you move forward with a new network and new content, all future shows should reflect that initial badassery. Which will probably be the case for El Rey- future showrunners can use the network as a testing ground for their wildest ideas, but Rodriguez will still be standing just out of sight, arms crossed, ensuring it all fits within his brand (a brand where the El Rey logo comes standard with an exploding fireball and melting celluloid effects).

Luna sums it up best. “He [Rodriguez] lets the directors run away with it. They’ve all been given carte blanche to make their own 43 minute movie.”

So long as that movie fits under the Rodriguez umbrella, of course. But the rest of the El Rey creatives are more than happy to oblige. Take a scene in Matador, wherein a Nazi sausage entrepreneur kills a man with a meat cleaver, and Luna’s character chases him down and barfs in his face until he surrenders. According to Luna, puking a Nazi into submission is the product of that mix- total creative freedom, so long as it holds enough genre pulp to appease Rodriguez.

“He’ll [Rodriguez] tell you he had nothing to do with that, but he gets credited for it. Because of his history. That’s also the kind of stuff that we knew, and the writers knew; if they throw down on the page, no one’s going to tell us ‘no.’ The bigger, the better, the cooler, the more wild, the more eccentric- the more that just curls Robert’s toes, you know? He loves it.”

Use Your Budget Wisely

Rodriguez is known for shooting films on the leftover change from his lunch bill. Naturally, a cable network helmed by this man takes a similar approach- the shows are shot quickly, and on the cheap (his scheduling moves at the same pace- “a new network wouldn’t create an original show for five to ten years, and here we are six months in and we have three original shows”).

But El Rey’s money management is also fueled by Rodriguez’ dissatisfaction with the pilot system, and its tendency to jerk us regular folks around.

“I always liked the idea of TV, but what I didn’t like was the process. It seemed like I had so much creative freedom making movies, and television, you know, you hear like, ‘oh, yeah… he wrote a pilot, and the pilot has to get greenlit, and he shot the pilot, and they didn’t pick up the pilot, because they make a hundred pilots.’ It seems like a lot of work for nothing, you know?”

So El Rey is a network without bigwigs. Or, at least, where the bigwigs are also writing and directing the moments where vampires rip off a guy’s face. Orci explains it in greater detail:

“I’m the one with Robert and with our team figuring out how to market the show. We’re the ones talking to brands, figuring out the relationships and how to have brand partnerships that help us both advertise the show, and actually give us money to help produce the show itself… Every decision goes through all of us. There are no adults to handle everything. And there’s no safety net. We have exactly as much money as we have. We can’t call on some studio to deficit it and steal money from some other show… We have to be more responsible than we’ve ever been.”

He’s also fond of referring to all this as “the lunatics run the asylum.” Because, again, puke Nazis.

Money stuff doesn’t have to be a slog, though- it’s all how you (or Orci) approach it. “Suddenly, my interest in business, and that I like talking to other businesses and brands and don’t think of marketing, and don’t think of commercials as something to be shied away from- I think of them as something to be additive to making good product. Suddenly that all came together.”

El Rey’s commercials certainly have more zing than the ones on NBC.

Plan for the Future

A TV network needs a game plan; an ideal future to strive for with whatever collection of shows it has amassed. El Rey has its game plan, which is real short and real simple (at least for the time being). Here’s Orci, to tell you more. “Goal number one for El Rey is for people to find it on their cable provider. So let’s start with small goals, right? Like, some people just don’t know where it is, so find it! Look it up. And the second thing is to really build it into a network.”

A little later, he clarified that second goal point: “God, I’d love to build this up into a real network! Right now, it’s still something you’ve got to discover. I’d love for this thing, in five years, to be a network that’s just competing with any other cable network.”

But building up a network from a collection of Texas Justice reruns (think Judge Judy, only topped with a cowboy hat and drizzled with succulent sausage gravy) into a grindhouse HBO takes more than just a game plan. It takes commitment. Rodriguez knows this; given that El Rey is his network, he’s in for the long haul.

“I knew the network was going to be a lot of work. I do everything but turn your TV on for you, doing all the programming, all the promos, it’s very hands on. Especially when you first start out with anything- it’s going to be like that for the next six to ten years.”

So he’ll spends the next decade or so pumping up El Rey, which means adding as much content as he can. Next up on the network are two unscripted series- Lucha: Uprising (freestyle Mexican wrestling) and Cutting Crew (an artiste hairdresser reality show). Rodriguez won’t be involved with these to the level of a Matador or a From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series (having directed two episodes of the former and four episodes of the latter), but nothing gets on the network without his stamp of approval.

Things will continue to grow from there: “It’s a network, you’ve got to keep feeding the beast, we’ve got to keep creating content.” Later, he adds, “Already a lot more people come to me, with ideas for shows, now that they’ve seen the level of quality with the work that we have.”

That big stack of new content is coming from industry pros, but also random folks with cameras- a section of the El Rey site is devoted to user submissions, cultivated with intent to air them on El Rey (“If we think it’s cool, we will ask you about putting it on TV”). Like the diversity angle, this is a solid (and criminally underused) plan for the future. What we need are less networks flashing random tweets on screen (I value @JeffMonster_69’s opinion as much as the next guy, but that doesn’t mean I want those opinions interrupting my show), and more networks actively rooting out the undiscovered talent out there.

Have a Guitar On You At All Times

Walking on to the set of Matador, something immediately stands out: everyone is in a constant state of guitar noodling. Rodriguez, Orci, Luna, co-star Jonny Cruz, plus roughly ten to twenty others all had an acoustic guitar in their hands at one time or another (there were at least two being passed around). At one point, even I was given a guitar, so I could demonstrate to Orci my innate knowledge of the first four chords to “Here, There and Everywhere.”

Clearly, this is the secret to their success. If you have any plans to for a cable network startup, your first step should be buying six or seven cheap acoustics and throwing them at your coworkers. Only then will fame and fortune begin to flow.

So there you have it. Get your content squared away, plan a budget and some long-term goals, and then blow most of that budget at Guitar Center. You’ll be on your way to cable TV greatness in no time. Or, at the very least, you’ll be on your way to a cheap copy of El Rey- which, given the network’s trajectory, doesn’t seem like a bad plan. Or you could just go with an Orangutan Reality Network. Come on, it’s totally worth a shot.