- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2000

Rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated, says America's Voice.

The cable network has been a bastion of conservative political programming in one incarnation or another for seven years.

But it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Jan. 10. Fourteen production people got pink slips. Three prominent hosts Mary Matalin, Robert Novak and Susan Molinari "are on hiatus," according to spokesman Jim Halling.

"We are still very much on the air, and determined to stay there," he added yesterday. "We still believe in what we're doing."

Which has been to provide toothsome political content and an interactive forum for an audience comfortable with talk radio, traditional values and hosts like Armstrong Williams and Michael Reagan.

Programming is still active.

In conjunction with the National Journal, the network recently provided 10 days of presidential primary coverage in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Mr. Armstrong, and three other live shows remain on the air.

According to Mr. Halling, the financial situation has been poor for the past 17 months. Lawyers revealed last week that America's Voice had $23 million in debts. The network got a temporary reprieve by its satellite provider, which has given it until March 31 to pay its bill or truly get yanked off the air.

But America's Voice, Mr. Halling said, has a trio of viable buyers in the wings, and is operating with a trimmed budget "designed to carry us forward."

Troublesome criticisms have surfaced, however.

A recent issue of Broadcast & Cable magazine noted that the channel's "effort to evolve from a nonprofit mouthpiece for right-wing activists to a mainstream, commercial news and talk network has clearly failed."

America's Voice has gone through an identity crisis or two since it was founded as National Empowerment Television by Free Congress Foundation President Paul Weyrich in 1993.

"We will be able to present an unfiltered message to the American public," Mr. Weyrich said during the first broadcast. "The public has received that message only through the prism of the media."

On-air talent at the time included Newt Gingrich, Arianna Huffington and Lamar Alexander.

But Mr. Weyrich's vision of conservatism did not jibe well with the Republican Party. Insiders whispered that the network could never jump onto profitable mainstream cable channels with a dominant "conservative leader" at the controls.

In 1997, Mr. Weyrich left the network 10 days after the New Republic ran an unflattering profile of him, which many believe fostered his resignation. Since then, various executives at the network have searched for new revenues and content with wider public appeal.

But such is the nature of unpredictable cable TV. Sometimes, success does not hinge upon money alone.

Last November, The Freedom Forum's incredibly well-funded public affairs channel, the Forum Network, never even made it to the air, despite an eager staff and the guidance of CEO Ted Turner, a founding father of CNN. The network simply couldn't get the air space.

Without adequate cable carriage, the job was "difficult if not impossible," said chairman Charles Overby. It was, however, "a market reality."

Jennifer Harper can be reached at 202/636-3085 or by e-mail (Harper@twtmail.com).

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