Homemade and Hot
At cable upfronts, original fare is the star
By Anne Becker -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/8/2005 8:00:00 PM
Cable networks' upfronts dazzle media buyers with lavish soirees, but aside from the shrimp they serve, they all have one thing in common. They're heavily pushing development slates brimming with original series.
With fully distributed cable networks past impressing operators with volume, and cable as a whole rivaling broadcast for ratings share, cable networks are fattening budgets for original fare, hoping to stamp their own signatures on their networks with series that lure viewers and put them on the map with critics.
After FX and USA garnered Emmys for The Shield and Monk, other basic-cable networks are hungry for award-worthy shows they can call their own.
And studios once reluctant to deficit-finance originals for cable networks that couldn't afford the license fees necessary for quality shows are getting in on the game. That is a risky proposition because the backend for syndication and foreign sales is still unclear and cable's ratings numbers—and by translation its ad dollars—don't compare to broadcast's.
But they can't stop talking about those “originals,” because cable networks know that is how their brand is built. “Every network tweaks its communication at upfront time, but we are absolutely in the midst of a programming renaissance on cable,” says Bob DeBitetto, executive VP of programming at A&E.
A&E banks on its unscripted fare like Growing Up Gotti, Dog the Bounty Hunter and Airline to lower its one-step-from-the-old-age-home demo. Although the network boasts major acquired shows in the pipeline with CSI: Miami and The Sopranos, its ratings growth in key demos and reduction in median age has come from its current originals. Now the network aims to air its own scripted series, likely half-hour or hour-long dramas to complement the acquired shows, by 2007.
As DiBitetto notes, everybody knows about The Sopranos, so “they're not going to talk about it in the way they will originals.” Development executives know cable often orders more initial episodes than broadcast, which allows more creative freedom.
“It's a real business. If you're a producer these days, you have to develop for networks, cable and syndication,” says John Ferriter, senior VP/head of network and alternative programming, at William Morris in Los Angeles. “The worlds have all collided.”
“There are producers who produce cable and syndication and will make huge overall deals with cable because there is real estate,” Ferriter says. “Smart clients do not develop in a vacuum. They look at the marketplace and develop for those needs quickly.”
The same goes for the international marketplace, where he says, in the past three years, buyers from cable networks including MTV, Discovery and the Fox channels have increased negotiations at international TV conventions MIP and MIPCOM.
“Studios are increasingly taking a 'portfolio approach,' developing equally for broadcast and cable networks,” says Zack Van Amburg, senior VP of development and cable programming at Sony Pictures Television, which produces FX's Rescue Me and Showtime's Huff. “We sell everywhere, and we saw opportunities in cable most aggressively and first in the marketplace out of the competitive studios around town. There's an equal amount of passion and weight given to each.”
Turner will push ahead on TNT this summer with The Closer and Wanted to bolster the foundation it already has from basketball and Law & Order reruns. Meanwhile, this fall, TBS will roll out Minding the Store and Daisy Does America.
But Steve Koonin, executive VP/COO of TNT and TBS, cautions that original programs do not a brand make. “Many networks believe their original programs are the brand, and the naiveté of that belief is, if it's true, you're going to cannibalize your brand,” he says. “You build a strong brand and a strong schedule, and you program to that.”
While TNT's summer slate is scripted, TBS has less pricey unscripted shows.
“Our ratings come extraordinarily from an investment in smart original programming,” says Bravo/Trio President Lauren Zalaznick. “The only way you get the mind and energy of the viewer at this kind of niche cable level is to demonstrate originality on a consistent basis. If your revenue is based on ratings, you have to figure out where those ratings come from. So you test yourself, expand your boundaries, get rigorous with what the brand can handle, and that all comes out through originals.”
Bravo has been boosted by Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Project Runway and will up its original fare by 30% in 2006, including a development slate with a series on New York's Daily News in addition to Battle of the Network Reality Stars, The Real Housewives and Top Chef.
Elsewhere at NBC Universal, USA has used originals like Monk to distinguish itself from other general- entertainment networks, while Sci Fi created its own shows for lack of affordable science-fiction fare in the marketplace. Now its Stargate franchise is consistently a top performer, and the channel is poised to push beyond aliens and space travel with the upcoming Eureka and Painkiller Jane.
That original programming has grown so rapidly surprises some cable veterans, including Bonnie Hammer, president of USA and Sci Fi.
“Five years ago, you would call up people and beg them to come for a pitch. If you got your call returned, you were lucky, much less if they showed up. Now people call us with no solicitation saying we have a great idea and we want to come to you. The turnaround has been wild. Martin Scorsese, Joel Silver, Steven Spielberg—people are coming out of the woodwork.”
As the ratings and talent have improved, so has the originals' quality, Hammer says.
“Years ago, just to get anything on television in a cable world, you would cut corners left and right just to say you were doing originals. You didn't have the money, and some of it looked like 'cable product.' I'll go toe to toe with anybody who can tell me the shows on USA and Sci Fi are not network or HBO quality.”
Still, cable is a risky business. Scripted dramas on cable go for $1.5 million to $2 million per episode, while broadcast's command $2.5 million or more. Backend returns from international, syndication and DVD sales are a gamble, and they don't deliver the cachet or cash some developers and talent command.
The major leagues
“I'd give up 10 cable deals for a network in a second,” says Dave Noll, president of New York-based independent production company City Lights Television, which has upcoming series on AMC and the Discovery networks and is pitching nearly 100 to both broadcast and cable. “It's the major leagues. No baseball player is going to say, 'You know what? I'm happier here in the minors. That works for me.'”
Plus, while cable shows' ratings are still lower than broadcast, studios are increasingly willing to deficit-finance to help cable chase the buzz.
“Half of what this is about is the critical acclaim, the intelligentsia rallying around and saying, 'The Shield is an Emmy-winning show,'” says Kevin Beggs, programming/production president of boutique studio Lions Gate Television. “Ratings are great, but the Emmy is the thing that's touted.”
With well focused branding to distinguish themselves from the pack, cable networks also offer easier targets to pitch and have clearer mandates than nebulous broadcast networks, Beggs says.
“As a supplier, it's not easy, but it's easier to get a handle on what you're doing,” he says. “On the flip side, you have to be laser-like in precision.”
Beggs, whose studio produced Lifetime's Missing, USA's Dead Zone and Showtime's Weeds, is at work on Lifetime's Gravity from Gale Anne Hurd, ABC Family's summer scripted drama Wildfire and the Dean Devlin crime drama Talk to Me for TNT.
Currently pitching TNT, FX and those with whom he has a track record, Beggs usually develops shows with particular cable networks in mind and focuses on scripted fare.
“A mix is probably healthy. And frankly, with a few exceptions, reality programming isn't looked at in the same way. It's cheaper, more sensational for the most part, and an affordable Band-Aid that sometimes becomes the entire limb of a network. In cable, the networks that have really emerged and hit it have been on the backs of scripted hours.”
Now, says Beggs, the future lies in cable-to-cable syndication. And after A&E's record $2.5 million deal for The Sopranos, will today's hit basic-cable originals command similar rates? Sony is shopping The Shield, and Beggs' Dead Zone has nearly enough episodes to syndicate.
“I never thought that was possible until cable go so hot,” Beggs says. “These really successful original cable dramas will show a definable backend that's profitable. Right now, we're just waiting to see who makes a play.”
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