A lot of people in Hartford have been skeptical about progress at Back9Network, the golf lifestyle media outlet with a flashy culture, a plan for a studio on Constitution Plaza, and the goal of launching a cable TV channel.
Back9 founder and CEO James L. Bosworth Jr. had hoped to have a cable deal and a working studio on the plaza in 2013, and neither one happened, fueling fears that the capital city would once again find itself snakebitten.
That studio space in the former Spris restaurant location, briefly Braza, is not only going to open, Bosworth said, but it's more than halfway there. Without making any announcements, the company has spent $4.5 million toward the $7.5 million total cost of the studio, starting in 2012.
The firm is now seeking approval from the city of Hartford for exterior signs and large "video boards" that need a special permit, Bosworth said, and Hartford's development director, Thomas Deller, confirmed.
A decision will take at least two months, Deller said.
With no city permits in hand yet, there's no timetable for an opening of the 6,500-square-foot space. An artist rendering shows a sign on the outside, "Clint Eastwood Studio," which might make sense since the iconic Hollywood star is a shareholder and adviser to Back9. But the name on the rendering is just a visual device, Bosworth said.
What's real, he said, is the company's progress even without a cable deal. Back9 now has 43 employees at its offices and smaller studio space on the 10th floor of the Phoenix "Boat Building" across Constitution Plaza, and on the road making content about the culture and lifestyle of golf.
The web page, http://www.back9network.com, is up to 600,000 unique visitors a month, he said, with videos, stories and photo galleries added every day.
Early next week, Back9 plans to announce a new deal with FOXSports.com and Yardbarker, a Fox-owned blog site, in which Back9 stories and other content will appear on the Fox web sites, editors will collaborate, and the companies will share advertising revenue.
Back9 would like to appeal to women, especially younger ones, not just the middle-aged men who make up the bulk of golfers. To that end, Back9 this week added reality TV star Audrina Patridge to its talent roster.
Those two developments could give Back9 significant added exposure — and would be part of the company's "what if" strategy of growing as an online-only platform, called "over the top" in the media industry.
The goal, of course, remains for Back9 to be a cable TV channel. And the planned buyout of Time Warner Cable by Comcast complicates matters. The reason: Among all of the national cable TV and satellite companies, Time Warner was the one that seemed most excited about Back9Network, Bosworth said Thursday.
That does not mean a deal was near. Bosworth was adamant on that point.
"You're never quite sure because they're negotiations," he said. "But outwardly, in terms of response and engagement, we've probably had the most momentum with Time Warner Cable."
Comcast, by contrast, which owns the Golf Channel, told Bosworth and his team outright that it would not launch Back9.
Back9 has also had talks with DirecTV and Stamford-based Charter Communications Inc., among others. As Back9 builds an audience, the TV industry is starting to see the value of a network devoted to the stories and expensive lifestyles tied to golf, Bosworth said. There may only be 27 million golfers in the United States, but, he quipped, "Nobody buys a second home next to Giants Stadium."
Bosworth rushed into the office in Thursday's snowstorm to deal with the Comcast-Time Warner Cable situation. He resisted the urge to call Jennifer Chun, the Time Warner Cable program acquisition chief, figuring she'd be plenty busy; they're meeting next week anyway.
The merger announcement would seem to be more bad than good for Back9. But Bosworth sees an upside as regulators and critics eye the deal's anti-competitive aspects.
Comcast "could be encouraged to carry alternatives to programming that they already own," he said. "That's a realistic scenario. … And I think we could be one of the examples that they point to."
Back9, meanwhile, remains in full compliance with the terms of its $5 million loan from the state Department of Economic and Community Development — and has raised six times that amount from private investors, 60 percent of them in Connecticut, Bosworth said. The firm is also eligible for digital production tax credits but hasn't applied for them yet, state officials said.
The $5 million in state aid came under some criticism when Back9 posted a lewd video in late 2013. Show host Jennifer Bosworth, Bosworth's wife and a former reporter at Fox CT, the Courant's partner, did a spoof of a sex question-and-answer show, in which she offered raunchy answers, not repeatable on a family blog post, or a business blog post.
James Bosworth called it a "skit that didn't go right," and said Back9 took it down quickly. "We apologized because we didn't like it," he said.
I can't excuse it readily. As Eastwood said as "Dirty Harry" Callahan in "Magnum Force," "A man's gotta know his limitations." And so does a media outlet.
That segment was an extreme example of the wild, Hollywood style that Back9 is planting on the front yard of the buttoned-down Insurance City. Bosworth is keenly aware of the cultural divide and insists his people work harder than anyone.
If they can deliver some excitement to Hartford, great. The cable merger announcement comes at crucial time for the fledgling network, and Back9's optimistic company culture seems helpful. "I'm obviously very concerned," Bosworth said, "But maybe it's good for us."