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Pentagon Channel Turns Four Years ‘New’

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 14, 2008 – As the Pentagon Channel celebrates four years of service to troops, families and veterans today, it’s not really getting older — its programming and technology are getting newer.

Launched as the Defense Department’s broadcast news and information service with live coverage from the Joint Services Open House at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on May 14, 2004, the channel started with about 20 staff members and was broadcast primarily overseas and on a handful of DoD facilities stateside via the American Forces Network. It simultaneously launched a Web site, offering its content through the Internet at www.pentagonchannel.mil.

Now, the channel boasts a staff of nearly 100, and its reach has grown to include about 360 DoD installations and 13 million homes in the United States and nearly 2.2 million servicembers globally.

“If it wasn’t for the dedication of the staff and the passion for the mission, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Brian Natwick, general manager of the Pentagon Channel, said. “We’re really focused on the mission of getting the servicemembers the news and information that they need, and not only for the active duty, but also for the Guard and reservists and family members and veterans.”

Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Liz Murray has been with the Pentagon Channel for almost a year, and was assigned to the channel for a month when it launched four years ago.

"I love working in an environment that allows us to tell the news stories that are going on around the world and affect our military servicemembers," she said. "As a broadcast journalist in the Navy, I get to tell the stories as well as be a part of other people’s world. It brings me a whole new appreciation of what our military men and women in the military do on a daily basis.”

Being on hand for the channel’s ambitious debut and again as it has become increasingly cutting-edge has given Murray a real appreciation for how far it has come.

"I have seen the Pentagon Channel grow tremendously, from a small-staffed organization that produced a few shows to a place that feels like an actual news organization that is catching the attention of many," she said.

Part of the channel’s success has been in leveraging new technology to reach its audience. About a year ago, it began offering “podcasts” to its list of services. This allows viewers to download most of the channel’s content to portable listening and viewing devices. Since its start a little more than a year ago, nearly 7 million viewers have downloaded its free content.

Natwick got the podcast idea during a trip to combat zones in Iraq, where he saw troops constantly carrying portable music and video players. Now, podcasts are a “great means of distribution for the Pentagon Channel,” Michael Winneker, the channel’s marketing coordinator, said. The channel averages 400,000 downloads a month, he noted.

“It seems to be a way for them to get information literally on the go,” he said.

The channel also stretched its programming legs this year by producing its first military lifestyle shows. The channel regularly broadcasts DoD briefings, service and Pentagon news. This year, it launched “Fit for Duty,” a physical fitness show, and “Grill Sergeants,” a cooking show. Troops host both shows, and the programs have become some of the channel’s most popular content, Winneker said.

Next, the channel plans to branch out its “video on demand” services. Viewers already can download most programming from the channel’s Web site, but now the channel is making the service available to cable and public access channels nationwide. Specific shows can be downloaded and programmed directly into the stations’ programming from a Web site. Already, 80 public access channels have signed up for the service, Winneker said.

A handful of U.S. cable and satellite television companies, such as Verizon, Dish Network, Comcast and Cox, have picked up the channel entirely, making it the only AFN channel available to non-DoD networks.

But reaching a general audience is not the channel’s mission, Winneker said. Having the channel on local cable systems in communities near military bases makes the programming available to servicemembers and family members who live outside the base’s gates.

“These are great ways for servicemembers who are in the Guard or Reserve or family members who don’t live on base … to watch the Pentagon Channel,” he said. “We say it’s ‘where you want it, how you want it programming.’”

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