Cable programmers: Bargains can be costly

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Cable programmers have learned -- the hard way, perhaps -- that a bargain
doesn't always make a hit.

Game shows and licensed fare may cost less than original productions, but
the results don't always measure up, top cable-programming executives said during a
discussion on programming financing Tuesday at the National Show in New
Orleans.

"Part of the beauty of game shows is that they cost less, but if they don't
work, it's not worth it," ABC Cable president Anne Sweeney said as executives
discussed their programming hits and misses.

On ESPN, a sports-trivia game show seemed like a "no-brainer," said senior
vice president of programming Mark Shapiro, but Two Minute Drill never
caught on because ESPN couldn't give it a consistent time slot.

While licensed series may be less expensive than original productions,
there's no creative control, Turner Entertainment president Brad Siegel said. He
added that Turner's biggest flop was New Adventures of Robin Hood -- a bargain at
$100,000 per episode, but it didn't find an audience.

Herb Scannell, president of Nickelodeon, TNN: The National Network and TV Land, echoed that
sentiment. "The license game is a limited game," he said. "You can make [your
money] back on ad sales, and that's it."

Since the early 1990s, he added, Nick opted to finance, and control, its own
programming. Increasingly, more cable networks are doing the same. Funding
originals gives them both control of content and future domestic and
international sales.

Co-productions are becoming a clear alternative.

Discovery Communications Inc. often partners with the British Broadcasting Corp. for major productions.

Siegel said he, too, looks for international partners to split the costs in
exchange for international-distribution rights.

DCI president and chief operating officer Judith McHale cautioned that "what
you spend doesn't necessarily correlate with ratings." She cited The Learning Channel's cult hit,
Trading Spaces, as a lower-cost show at about $25,000 to $30,000 per episode,
compared with another recent ratings smash, Discovery Channel special Blue
Planet
, which fetched an eye-popping $11 billion.

MTV: Music Television, of course, is learning that even a bargain can turn costly. Cable's
hottest show, The Osbournes, which grabbed a 4.8 rating last Tuesday,
costs about $200,000 per episode this season. If the show gets its new deal, as
expected, MTV may pony up $20 million for two more seasons.

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