A couple of months ago, Cary Fields was driving along the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx when he spotted a billboard announcing the debut of a new cable channel called WE. As the co-founder and president of a five-year-old business called We Media, Mr. Fields had more than a passing interest in this new enterprise, which was not his.
Soon, friends started calling him at his fifth-floor office on William Street in downtown Manhattan. “Man, you’re all over the place,” they’d say. “Who’s all over the place?” he’d ask. “You. I mean, We,” they’d say. “Yeah,” he’d reply, “well, that WE ain’t us.”
No, it certainly wasn’t. The WE in the billboards was the new name for the Romance Classics Channel, owned by the likes of-are you ready?-General Electric, the National Broadcasting Company and Cablevision, among others. These giants took a liking to the brand name of WE (a lovely, inclusive acronym for the enterprise’s official name, Women’s Entertainment) and decided to use it to re-launch their niche channel.
As luck would have it, Mr. Fields and his partner, Jerome Belson, also thought WE was a pretty good brand name. They liked it so much that they had it trademarked after founding their company in 1997. In the years since, they’ve been developing We Media as a multimedia resource for people with disabilities, whether physical or mental. We Media started with a magazine, called WE , and quickly expanded to television programs, sponsorship of events like the Paralympics in Australia last year, developing a voice-activated browser for the visually impaired and, finally, preparing to launch a cable-TV channel.
Mr. Fields hasn’t been working in obscurity these last few years. His impressive board of advisers includes Walter Cronkite, who is under contract to produce a series of documentaries; WE magazine’s sports editor is Casey Martin, the disabled professional golfer. In 2000alone,Mr.Fields’company spent $50 million furthering the We brand. We Media took out a series of full-page ads in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Time magazine and other high-profile outlets. Another chunk of the $50 million was used to win exclusive broadcast and Webcast rights to the Paralympics Games through 2006-the Paralympics, the Olympic Games for the disabled community, generally take place about two weeks after the Olympics, in the same city and venues.
Mr. Fields returned from the Paralympics in Sydney last year convinced that We Media was ready to take its brand to the next level, cable television. Then the other WE-the WE of General Electric and NBC and Cablevision, the WE that took out a 16-page, full-color, celebrity-drenched ad in the trade journal Multichannel News -made its highly publicized presence known. “I felt like the wall on a handball court, taking shot after shot, and I couldn’t hit back,” Mr. Fields said. Now, he says, “we’re stopped in our tracks. Our ability to advance the business has been halted.”
Nobody from the other WE ever contacted Mr. Fields, and now the rivals speak to each other through lawyers. Mr. Fields’ company is suing Cablevision and other parties for $200 million in damages. The suit has been filed in federal court; discovery is underway and should be finished by mid-July. (A spokesperson for Women’s Entertainment said: “We have reviewed the lawsuit and are confident that WE: Women’s Entertainment does not represent any trademark infringement against We Media Inc.”)
“It’s the ultimate identity theft,” Mr. Fields said during an interview in his office. “This is as blatant as it gets. And the other side thinks time is on their side, that we’ll just go away.”
If that’s the case, then the executives at the other WE clearly didn’t follow We Media’s coverage of the Paralympics (parts of which were shown on Fox Sports Net, a business partner of Cablevision’s). No organization that celebrates and chronicles the courage of the disabled community would pack up and disappear when confronted with the power of corporate America. Mr. Fields tells of one of the most inspiring sights of last year’s Paralympics: a Chinese swimmer with no arms, churning through the pool on leg strength and heart, finishing just behind the winner.
When you see that kind of bravery, you’re less inclined to run away from a fight with great American conglomerates.
“What do they expect, that I’ll say, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ll sell you my name, and then I’ll fall on my sword and put myself out of business?'” Mr. Fields said.
No doubt the nation’s great communications and entertainment empires have run across a self-impaler or two during their campaign to conquer the American living room. But now they’re faced with opponents who aren’t likely to give up so easily. How could they?
“We’ve given a voice to people who haven’t had a voice,” said Mr. Fields. “Now they want to mute it?”
Not a chance.