It's all relative
Small ratings sometimes mean big success
By John M. Higgins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/18/2001 7:00:00 PM
The biggest audience the Food Network ever mustered for star chef Emeril Lagasse was about 1 million people, scoring a 1.2 Nielsen household rating for a special tied to the Super Bowl last year. More typically, his oft aired shows on Food Network capture about 500,000 adult viewers.
Pulling in 500,000 viewers would mark a dismal failure over at TNT, whose summer hit Witchblade regularly scored more than five times that figure. But Essence of Emeril was clearly a giant breakout hit that transformed Food Network. It put it on advertisers' radar, attracted more talent, sparked development of more-ambitious programming and pushed it into public consciousness. And Emeril's popularity grew to the point where NBC built a sitcom around him.
Unfortunately for Emeril, that move proved he's a better chef than actor, and NBC is tucking its Emeril into the freezer faster than you can say, "Bam!"
But the point is, you can say, "Bam!" and most people know what it means. Any bets that Witchblade gets parodied on Saturday Night Live as Lagasse was in October?
Every cable network strives for hits, but what passes for a hit is relative. Programming executives dream of an oil strike like HBO's The Sopranos, a cable program that scores viewership on par with broadcast networks. But most nets will settle for a Daily Show, a high-buzz show that generates only modest ratings even by Comedy Central's standards. Or Lifetime's Strong Medicine, which is one of the highest-rated prime time series on basic cable but is pretty short of buzz. Or even merely buying off-CBS runs of Jag, the highest-rated series in USA Network's prime time lineup.
Many entertainment networks can feed off the Hollywood system created by the broadcast networks, pick up a show, produce TV movies and license the most reliable ratings fuel, theatrical films. But networks like History Channel or Discovery have to go down more distinct avenues and have different standards of what they consider a hit.
"Hits have a whole different meaning for cable," says Dawn Tarnofsky-Ostroff, executive vice president of entertainment for top-rated Lifetime Television.
It's hard for a broadcast network to argue that a show is a hit unless it scores big in Nielsen household ratings or at least sweeps a particular demographic category. But cable shows that grab a particular audience and help crystallize a network's brand can be a hit with just few hundred thousand viewers.
"The bar these days is a combination of ratings and buzz," says USA Network President Doug Herzog, a veteran of MTV, Comedy Central and Fox's broadcast network. "Comedy Central's South Park is a hit on both levels. The Lifetime shows, which are heavy hitters, would like a little more buzz. You don't hear people talking about The Division on the streets."
He quickly notes that USA is subsisting on off-broadcast fare like Walker, Texas Ranger and Jag, plus theatrical movies. "I recognize I'm in a glass house," he says. "I'd love to have those ratings. But I want it all, I want heat."
In cable, it doesn't have to be original to be a hit. "I am speechless over the power of Law & Order," says TNT Executive Vice President and General Manager Steve Koonin, who counts the off-NBC drama as his top-rated program aside from sports and movies. After picking up recent episodes in June, he says, "We haven't put it in any kind of a pattern yet, and the audience always finds it."
Koonin believes that a show has four hurdles to clear to succeed on his network. It has to attract advertisers and then impress cable and DBS operators that pay for the service. It also has to meet certain quality standards ("We don't want to run Jackass," says Koonin of MTV's highest-rated show). Finally, it needs to show ratings growth.
"Bull met the first three," Koonin says in reference to TNT's much-hyped Wall Street series that tanked in the ratings last winter. TNT shot a second flight of episodes that will never air. "We could not mount a large enough audience to sustain that."
Koonin adds that Witchblade has been the exact opposite. "The ratings for Witchblade had a lot of demo growth," particularly in younger audiences.
The same goes for Charmed, a split-window series TNT gets days after an episode airs on sister network The WB. The show skews young and female, seemingly at odds with TNT's presumed 18-49 target. "Charmed is bringing in a totally new audience," Koonin contends.
But executives at other networks chuckle over the rush last summer by new Turner Broadcasting Chairman Jamie Kellner, who previously was CEO of WB, to add Charmed to TNT's schedule. "It's kind of wedged into their schedule," says a senior executive at a competing cable network. "But anyone will fudge on strategy for a show that gets a number."
At the entertainment networks, the process is still pretty straightforward. It's a miniature version of what NBC and ABC do every year: agents, scripts, production companies, plus asking what's coming up for off-net syndication.
The development process is changing as networks evolve. Discovery Channel's new General Manager Clark Bunting is shifting the network away from narrated science and nature programs and toward big personalities to attract viewers. He is drawing on his experience as general manager of Animal Planet, where he scooped up crocodile hunter Steve Irwin from Australian TV.
"If you just put a host in at the top and bottom of the show, that's not what it is," Bunting says. "I want a host who's going to get down in the mud, get sweaty. I don't want somebody blow dried, sitting behind the anchor desk."
That means that picking up shows from foreign networks and indie producers is tougher, because talent has to be chosen and groomed more carefully.
President of Programming Brian Graden is in a third wave of development at MTV. When he arrived four years ago, MTV had lapsed into a slump that unfortunately coincided with lack of direction in its foundation, pop music. He responded by putting 25 shows into serious development, most of which made it on the air in some fashion, including Total Request Live. He did it again two years ago, with a dozen shows, virtually all of which have remained on the air, including controversial hit Jackass and softball homes-of-the-stars show Cribs.
"My first year, I said let's create hits," Graden says. "But a big hit can burn very brightly and go out instantly as we found with Tom Green." The once white-hot comic's outrageous Lettermanesque antics went cold in the ratings.
With MTV on solid ratings ground, Graden wants to avoid getting stuck in a rut and has completely restructured development. "We have seven or eight distinct development operations," which he believes makes the process more methodical: "We can afford to be pickier. We don't go straight to a pilot, then straight to air."
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