By Leah Hochbaum

Once upon a time there were but a few TV channels from many small companies. Viewers would turn the television’s manual dial and then sit back, relax and be forced to watch whatever was foisted upon them. Times have changed, though. Today, there are literally thousands of channels to choose from, coming from a handful of large companies (but that’s another story) — channels that allow even TV watchers with the most outlandish tastes to find a channel suited to their needs. While cable and satellite channels are relegated to the large, rich companies, the Internet and, in particular, IPTV technology, now allow small companies to distribute niche TV channels. Yes, from food to adult-themed cartoons to porn, it seems there’s a channel for everyone, yet new channels are still popping up each and every day, filling a need for lovers of all things niche.

“People love movies,” said Stanley Hubbard, chairman and CEO of ReelzChannel, a new 24-hour network that is devoted to film. “With so many channels showing movies, and so many choices available, we help people cut through the thousands of titles to make better choices with their time and money. And we do it in a fun and entertaining way.”

ReelzChannel, which is available in the U.S., debuted in September 2006 with 28 million subscribers — “the biggest cable/satellite network launch in history,” according to Hubbard. The channel, which was in development for a whopping six years before it finally hit the airwaves, features a host of movie-related programming, including Dailies, a daily news and information series about the goings-on in the world of movies, and Secret’s Out, a show in which famed critic Leonard Maltin picks the hidden movie gems he feels the world’s been missing out on.

Lots of channels show movies, though, and Hubbard acknowledges that being one of many networks catering to lovers of film, ReelzChannel needs to stand out from the pack. “We have to be as good as the others and always remember who our audience is,” he said.

But while movie lovers are known to flock to wherever the pictures are being shown and the behind-the-scenes info is to be found, other more specialized channels — especially ones that are aimed at more of a niche market — launch knowing that it might take people a little longer to find them. And they don’t really mind.

“My wife and I have been visiting Italy for years,” said Ronnie Del Sesto, founder of WebVisionItaly.com, a new advertiser-supported, English-language broadband TV network featuring programs about Italian culture and travel. “The toughest part of planning a trip was doing the research. Even the Travel Channel, which is great, focuses on very broad topics — not the sort of things one needs to plan a vacation.”

Though it’s on the Internet, the Providence, Rhode Island-based WebVisionItaly is more like a regular channel than other broadband networks. The channel follows a traditional TV advertising model, in which commercials are placed in breaks during and between programs. In addition to this patent-pending advertising formula, the channel refuses to accept pop-up or banner ads. In November, more than 125,000 shows were watched on the network. “There’s great stickiness,” said Del Sesto. “We’re not a click-through site. We’re a destination.”

Other new specialized offerings popping up around the dial include the soon-to-be-relaunched Ovation, The Arts Network — a net devoted exclusively to the arts and creativity. The network, which debuted in 1996, was recently acquired by a group of private investors led by Hubbard Media Group, a subsidiary of Hubbard Broadcasting, which also owns and operates ReelzChannel. While Ovation’s been focused on the arts for some time now, the relaunch, slated for late 2007, will retain that focus yet make the content more accessible to the average viewer. Said Stanley Hubbard: “[This] channel truly devoted to the arts can be taken to a new level.”

New channels have been springing up all over the place, and while finding them the first time may be a challenge, now that we’ve done away with manual dials, being able to come back for repeat viewings should be a cinch.