Programmers: It's Time To Go Big, or Go Home

Broadcast and cable pros to focus on brand-defining hits, answers to authentication and streaming mysteries in the year ahead 1/02/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern

In an era when hits can generate $1 billion in
revenue, as BOA/Merrill Lynch media analyst
Jessica Reif Cohen noted last month at B&C’s
OnScreen Media Summit, programming strategies are
targeting brand-defining, monster hits more than ever.

It’s not just about the big paychecks popular programming
draws from the multiple revenue streams now in
play. Hits drive network value in the increasingly competitive
affiliate and marketing communities; they reinforce
brands’ relationships with the viewer; and perhaps
most importantly, a giant success is what it takes to
break through in the ever noisier landscape.

The proliferation of entertainment choices shows no
signs of slowing. As FX Networks president and general
manager John Landgraf points out, in 2002, the year
his network launched its first original series hit with
The Shield, the show was one of 35 series in basic and
premium cable. In 2011, there were 135. Now Netflix
is jumping in with originals, YouTube has new channels,
Starz is ramping up, HBO and Showtime are as busy as
ever, not to mention the Big Four, the CW, Univision,
Telemundo, USA, Turner…you get the picture.

“You’re not going to grow your business or emissary
beyond your core without a really, really big hit,” Landgraf
said. “It’s the only thing that will rise to people’s
consciousness and bubble up. And every programmer
is aware of that.”

So here’s what to look for in 2012.

Fewer, Bigger Swings

Look for programming execs to focus resources
on several big plays rather than large
slates of seemingly safe plays—even if some
recent ambitious efforts disappointed. While
ABC is benching Sony Pictures TV’s bigticket
drama Pan Am in midseason, Steve
Mosko, president of SPT, said he is sticking to
his strategy of doing fewer
shows better: “If people are
spending $5-10 million on
pilots, if you go the cheap
route, I can guarantee you
that you spend $3 million
in wasted money because
when you put it against a
$6 million pilot, you lose,”
Mosko said at OnScreen.

The Fox network and
Twentieth Century Fox TV
studio, which collaborated
on the expensive time-travel drama Terra Nova, which
did not break out, are planning some big projects outside
the traditional development season, including a reboot
of The Flintstones in partnership with Warner Bros. TV.

More Comedy

From ABC’s Suburgatory and Fox’s New Girl to CBS’
Two Broke Girls and NBC’s Up All Night, the recent successes
among primetime comedy launches no doubt
already inspired increased efforts across the industry to
launch more comedy. “We [the TV industry] tend to try
to chase our successes,” 20th Century Fox TV chairman
Dana Walden told B&C recently.

The comedy genre has proven to perform best in
primetime when paired with others in a block. So now
that they are all armed with something new to laugh
about, expect all of the Big Four to keep on the comedy
path. Even the CW, which has not been in
the comedy business, is making moves into
the genre, ordering comedy scripts.

As more cable networks also pursue original
comedy, Walden said the challenge will be “building
a financial scale which makes sense for those platforms.”

Keep Getting Real

Narrative nonfiction also will continue to be popular,
especially on basic cable networks that can stack repeats
leading into originals with relative financial ease and
keep the ratings pumping. The genre has some of the
same appeal of the ripped-from-the-headlines procedural
dramas that were hot for so long, like Law & Order, FX’s
Landgraf said. So expect more of that: “Literally there
isn’t an odd, charismatic, quirky shopkeeper in America
with a family-run business that is not being scouted out
by an agent,” Landgraf said.

And There Will Always Be Drama

Landgraf added that the enthusiasm for comedy and
reality does not mean folks have thrown in the towel on
drama. Programming execs expect a moderate uptick in
drama entries in 2012.

Also Looming in 2012

The Netflix Effect and The Streaming Situation:
After finding a gigantic hit, the next biggest thing on
programmers’ minds is “an orderly transition to the
digital world,” as one exec puts it. From the threat
of online piracy to the windowing of authenticated
video streams and the big question of whether Netflix
(or any other on-demand platform) can successfully
launch new originals, consumer habits and how to
measure and monetize them will be closely watched
in 2012 and beyond.

Signs of Life At NBC: By many accounts, a turnaround
at NBC is at least a five-year endeavor, even with
a well-regarded executive team now in place. But there
are some green shoots—or at least some launching pads,
in The Voice, the Super Bowl and the Olympics—to help
take some shots, like NBC’s internal favorite, Smash. All
it takes is one success to get things going.

Death of the Daytime Soap: In a year, ABC’s All My
and CBS’ Guiding Light were canceled, and in
January, ABC’s One Life to Live ends. At this rate, 2012
may be the year the decades-old daytime soap genre
officially becomes extinct.

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