Emboldened by a new parent and enhanced strategy, AT&T’s Audience Network is geared up for fall with a lineup of bold originals the network hopes can eke out an identity in this packed TV landscape. The competition for standout scripted original series isn’t just among the traditional TV networks and streaming services; Audience Network is a telco-satellite hybrid with its own over-the-top plans in the works.
Chris Long, head of Audience Network, said the network attracts top-flight content producers by offering a more collaborative experience. That may be hard to either quantify or prove, but the network is drawing boldface names to its ranks. A day after docuseries Religion of Sports, from Tom Brady and Michael Strahan, launches Nov. 15, the serialized crime drama Ice, from acclaimed filmmaker Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), debuts. The latter joins the likes of mixed martial arts drama Kingdom and political series Full Circle in Audience’s ranks of unsubtle scripted series.
Long said the Audience Network crew speaks the same language as content creators. “Most people who work here have production backgrounds,” he said. “Our success comes from our people knowing the process and understanding story and character.”
Time will tell if that’s enough for Audience’s shows to stand out. Rajiv Menon, cultural analyst at branding consultancy TruthCo., gives Audience Network high marks for creativity. “There’s a lot of culturally resonant and interesting stuff there,” he said, citing Kingdom and the “boundary-pushing” You Me Her, about a suburban married couple who bring a third party into their relationship. “The issue is access. They are really restricted in terms of how viewers discover their programs.”
Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, New Originals
Audience was formerly known as The 101 Network, and was perhaps best known as the place where beloved but ratings-challenged shows could continue; FX’s Damages and NBC’s Friday Night Lights extended their runs on the channel. In 2010, the name was changed to Audience Network, as the focus shifted to creating more original shows.
First up was Rogue, with Thandie Newton as a conflicted undercover detective. Full Circle debuted in 2013 and Kingdom, about a family that runs an MMA gym, a year later. Audience Network has picked up a third season of Kingdom.
Alan Sepinwall, influential TV critic at HitFix.com, speaks to Menon’s dual points about quality programming and distribution issues. “I like Kingdom a lot, but have fallen hopelessly behind because I’m not a DirecTV subscriber,” Sepinwall said via email. He is less enthused about Rogue. “Based on what I’ve seen, [Audience programming] is a mixed bag,” he added. “But when it’s good, it’s very good.”
AT&T acquired DirecTV in 2015, putting Audience in U-verse homes too. Long, who came up at Fox Sports under TV legend David Hill, suggests distribution challenges will largely disappear when AT&T releases its over-the-top DirecTV product in the fourth quarter. “It’s going to be really easy for people to access our content,” Long believes.
Menon said getting consumers on board with a network they may not be familiar with isn’t all that easy. “At this point the landscape is moving so quickly,” he said. “It might be too little, too late.”
‘King’ of Horror
Other projects potentially beckoning consumers include Loudermilk, a Peter Farrelly comedy that mines humor from a recovering alcoholic with a bad attitude, and Mr. Mercedes, an adaptation of a Stephen King novel. The latter had Anton Yelchin slated for a starring role, until the young actor’s death in June. Despite the tragedy, Long said the series is pegged to be a “huge tentpole” for the network.
Audience’s viewership is around 60% male. Long said its programming budget is “really competitive” with the likes of HBO and Showtime. (“I’m not dealing with a Netflix budget,” he lamented.) Available in 26 million homes, the network does not deploy the pilot process that’s typical for competitors. “If we believe in the writer, have a relationship with the writer, and think the subject matter is good, we’ll go straight to series,” Long said.
Every network featuring original productions makes its own pitch to content creators, and Long said Audience Network offers them a uniquely collaborative experience. “The people who work here have been in writers’ rooms and editing bays,” he said. “That gets them the respect of creatives.”