Describe a hot date, foot surgery or an encounter with a UFO to a roomful of cable TV executives, and don't be surprised if someone wants to turn that storyline into a show. Networks are always on the prowl for a new idea they can parlay into an "original," something that distinguishes the channel from all its competitors.
The trouble with originals is that cable is awash in them. They comprise nearly 75% of prime time across all of ad-supported cable networks. More than 100 new series were rolled out this year by the major cable networks alone, not to mention original fare on emerging networks like ZDTV, Speedvision, Romance Classics and the 40 or so non-movie networks on AT & T's digital distribution satellite, Headend in the Sky (HITS).
The deluge is causing cable networks increasingly to produce original programming for specific demographics. And a favorite target of the originals is 18- to-34-year-olds, particularly men who are hard to reach without sports. As a group, 18-49s pull in the majority of advertising dollars spent in cable, according to one television researcher; but buyers say men 18-to-34 bring in higher rates. That means that a cable network can do as well with a show that draws lots of 18-34 men as it can with a program watched by a bigger but more demographically diverse audience.
The weekly top-10 list of cable shows that rate highest among men 18-34 is filled with sports. Young men watch WWF wrestling, football, shows about football, auto racing, shows about auto racing, and more wrestling. During the final six weeks of summer-July 24 through Sept. 3-37 of the 50 top-rated shows among men 18-34 were wrestling and sports-related.
Since men 18-to-34 are difficult to attract without sports, networks that want the demo are investing in originals to get them. FX did a marketing blitz for Son of the Beach, one of its first originals. TBS touts itself as the "regular guy" network. Comedy Central plowed money into South Park, The Man Show and Battlebots.
None of this material is complex. Of original cable series (excluding sports, shows about sports, movies, specials and off-network acquisitions), the potty-mouthed, construction-paper kids of South Park ruled among men 18-34. After that, it was MTV's Real World, a show featuring a gaggle of petulant 20-somethings whose sole responsibility is being on TV-a dream perhaps for an 18-year-old, but are 34-year-olds really watching this?
"Certainly," says MTV's Senior Vice President of Research and Planning Todd Cunningham. "There's a repository of teens who aspire up and 34-year-olds who aspire back. Certain shows have an evergreen appeal." Remember, he added. those people [34-year-olds] were in their twenties when Real World came on. People may change a lot between the ages of 18 and 34. But as a group, they have similar buying patterns.
"They listen to the same music, respond to the same type of pitches, share many of the same type of television shows and buy a lot of the same products," Cunningham says. "Take fitness. All of them are obsessed with being young and staying young. They'll invest in anything that helps them stay that way: gym memberships, radical vacations, cosmetics."
Ad-supported cable networks will spend an unprecedented $6.45 billion on all programming-originals, acquisitions, movies and sports-this year, according to the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau. That's double the expenditure five years ago and about half of cable's projected total advertising take for 2000. Escalating price tags for sports and increasing competition for off-network acquisitions are part of what's driving up programming costs.
But so are the costs of ever more ambitious cable originals. Sci-Fi, a network that ranks No. 25 in household distribution, has Farscape, possibly the most costly original on cable. A Jim Henson-Hallmark production about an American astronaut's travels with a band of space fugitives, Farscape comes in at around $1.5 million per episode. Production costs are similar for Bull, TNT's new Wall Street series and the network's first original drama. Nero Wolfe, a new drama commissioned by A & E, will cost around $1 million to produce, according to published reports.
Call it the South Park phenomena. The crude toon, a Comedy Central "original," catapulted the network to the top of the cable ratings and into the national consciousness when it rolled out in 1997. It drove up distribution and fattened advertising revenue for Comedy Central. With the exception of kids programming, such breakouts are rare. Only HBO's wiseguy drama The Sopranos and the network's catty comedy Sex in the City have approached the word-of-mouth popularity of South Park. Both of those shows pull in ratings as high as 10 (or 10% of HBO's universe of about 25 million households).
South Park is down from its highs of 8.0s to about 3.0s, but that's still enough to keep it among the top-rated cable shows. In today's cable environment, a 1.0 is a respectable rating for an original. Bull, for example,is pulling in about a 1.2; Farscape a 1.5-less than 20% of what an average episode of Raw Is War generates.
The 18-34s have long been a favorite target of fast-food franchises, soft-drink makers and movie studios, but now more-mainstream advertisers are going after the group. They have more money than the previous generation of 18-to-34-year-olds, many of whom are now saddled with mortgages and credit-card debt. Automaker Ford even designed a car specifically for the 18-34s, according to one industry source. The Ford Focus campaign was launched last year during the MTV Video Music Awards.
Among the shows that fared best with 18-to-34-year-olds in the survey, four were launched this year. The jury is still out on BattleBots, the Comedy Central spectacle featuring wrestling robots. The show made a strong debut during the six-week survey period but showed signs of erosion (mostly among women) in late September. The popularity of Farmclub.com, an interactive music show on USA, appears be both a product and a casualty of wrestling. Ratings for Farmclub.com were cut in half after the WWF's Raw Is War moved to TNN on Monday, Sept. 25. Son of the Beach, the FX series starring Tim Stack as a goofier version of David Hasselhoff's heroic Baywatch lifeguard dude, is holding its own among male 18-34s but doesn't do a lot for women.
Women are watching Strong Medicine, the Lifetime drama pairing two women doctors whose personalities frequently clash, making it the highest-rated new original series on cable in overall households.
Lyricist Lounge and Making the Video are only a couple years old and may still be finding an audience. The remaining shows have some history and will most likely maintain their popularity with the demographic. Still, the list is bound to change depending on the time of year, says Brian Graden, president of programming for MTV. Real World and Road Rules and scripted series like Son of the Beach went into repeats or hibernation this fall. The Olympics dominated September, and broadcast premieres will likely cannibalize cable in October. After that, there are three months of football and shows about football and then more football when the XFL launches in February.
"We have a lot of short seasons," says MTV's Graden. "With a younger audience, you have to think differently. If the Backstreet Boys are in town, we gotta be on it. We tend to shift a lot to follow the rhythms of the world at large."
MTV's relationship with its audience contributes to the success of its shows as much as the shows themselves, according to Tim Brooks, senior vice president of research for Lifetime. The network's self-conciously cool attitude, its distinctive stylized promos and machine-gun editing can be picked out at a glance. As more and more networks are piled onto viewers, he observed, people tend to favor channels that deliver a consistently recognizable product.
"There's so much clutter and so many voices screaming for attention, when you have a strong brand, you can whisper and your audience will come," Brooks said. "Take MTV. They hardly advertise new shows. That's the strength of the brand. It's a McDonald's kind of thing. People know what to expect."
Before people had 200 channels to choose from, shows stood on their own, more or less independent from their networks. In the late '80s, Brooks said, NBC did a survey of people watching The Cosby Show. Nearly 80% didn't know what network it was on.