BabyFirstTV, the commercial-free cable channel aimed at babies, toddlers and their parents, is growing up.


Launched a year ago and run by Sharon Rechter, the fledgling network has taken some significant steps recently, with the signing of carriage deals with cable companies Comcast Corp. and Charter Communications. With those additions, along with original carriers DirecTV Group Inc. and the Dish Network, the channel is available domestically to more than 50 million homes, in most cases for $10 month.


The L.A.-based channel is available to more than 15 million overseas viewers via Britain's BSkyB Ltd. and other carriage deals in Mexico and Puerto Rico, and it's growing. In the next two months, the channel will roll out in Asia and Europe and last month, it launched in 22 Middle Eastern countries via Showtime Arabia, a pay TV network based in Dubai.


"We offered the channel in Arabic, but they wanted it in American English, which I thought was interesting," Rechter said.


The 31-year-old Rechter, herself a new mother, had been head of a Hebrew-speaking ethnic network for Echostar Communications Corp. before connecting with TV and film producer Arnon Milchan. His Regency Enterprises, the European firm Kardan N.V. and L.A.-based private equity group Bellco Capital put up the $10 million to launch the channel.


Rechter said she is pleased but not surprised that the channel is gaining a foothold in the Middle East.


"There is one common denominator in all countries parents want to give their children a head start," Rechter said. "We are one of the few networks which you can really say has no political message or content."


BabyFirstTV's most popular program is "I Can Sign," a show that teaches sign language. Rechter said the network programming also includes subtitles for adults that suggest appropriate questions for children, such as asking the color of an object onscreen.


Single-Screen Demise

The days of the single-screen showcase theater are dwindling in Westwood.


The Mann Theaters chain, co-owned by Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Studios and Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros., recently informed Topa Equities Ltd. of its intent to vacate Westwood's Festival Theater in April of next year. Topa representatives confirmed notice had been given, but Mann CEO Peter Dobson said no "final decision" has been made.


Last year, Mann abandoned the lease on the nearby 1,100-seat Mann National Theater. Simms Commercial Development, which owns that property, granted Tom Daugherty and a partner a short-term lease to operate the theater. While Simms won't confirm it, it's likely the lease won't be renewed and the property will be developed. Should the Festival close, Mann will be left with the Village and Bruin single-screen theaters in Westwood.


Robert Bucksbaum, who bought the Westwood Crest Theater in 2002 for $3.2 million, earlier this year put the landmark movie house up for sale for $5 million because the mortgage is too much for him to carry a loan. Bucksbaum is looking for a buyer who will keep the theater operating.


"I sustained it at a loss for as long as I could," Bucksbaum said. "It's an incredible building, but the cost is outlandish, and real estate prices just continue to skyrocket around here. I could get all my money back and then some if I wanted to sell it to be turned into anything, but I want to see it remain a theater."


In 2001, Mann abandoned the four-screen Westwood Theatre complex, which was replaced with a Whole Foods Market. In 2002, the chain turned over Westwood's Regent Theater to Landmark Theaters and in 2004 shuttered the Plaza Theaters, which has since been replaced by a retail development.


"Westwood clearly can't sustain six freestanding single theaters; it's part of a shift in the way we consume entertainment," said James Rosenfield, whose company handles the Festival lease.


A plan proposed in 2004 called for Mann to be the anchor tenant of a five-screen theater project in a $60 million, mixed-use development on Broxton and Le Conte avenues. That project stalled when the development partners filed lawsuits against each other. The price of renovating the National at the time was estimated at $5 million high due to the upgrades required to comply with asbestos removal, seismic and Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.


"For single screens it's a disaster and almost impossible to stay in business against multiplexes these days," Bucksbaum said. "But it's the difference between eating at McDonald's and eating at the Ivy."


ABC Soups Up

Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC, the network home of "Extreme Makeover," has done an extreme makeover on its primetime lineup.


The network last week rolled out its programming slate for the 2007-2008 broadcast season and it includes seven new dramas, four new comedies and a new reality show. Among the new programs is "Cavemen," the sitcom featuring the Geico commercial characters, which will air at 8 p.m. on Tuesdays.


The network had a solid rationale for being bold with its programming. Its ratings slipped last year with "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" losing some of their luster and longtime staple "Monday Night Football" moving to Disney cable sibling ESPN.


But the network's ratings fortunes improved after a tough winter and it is currently the ratings leader on the nights when Fox's "American Idol" is not on , Sunday, Monday and Thursday.


"Tuesday and Wednesday are for us the big focus," ABC Entertainment prexy Stephen McPherson told reporters before the network unveiled its new sked to advertisers in New York. "In the fall, when 'Dancing With the Stars' was on (those nights), we were doing really well. But when it came off, we had a big hole."


Staff reporter Anne Riley-Katz can be reached at (323) 549-5225, ext. 225, or ariley-katz@labusinessjournal.com .

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