With the success of Me-TV, Cozi TV and others in the classic television arena, the likes of Lassie, Get Smart and Magnum, P.I. clearly thrive in the multicast space. And with the demise of many stations’ local weather channels and Live Well Network, some believe the classics may be the only thing in the growing subchannel world that draws eyeballs. Yet if digi-nets are following a similar course as cable decades ago, as many believe, they may have to come up with the type of compelling original programming that enabled HBO, USA, TBS and other blue chip cablers to stand out.
Digi-nets raked in around $183 million in 2013, according to BIA/Kelsey. While producing engaging shows on a digi-net’s tight budget has myriad challenges, channels such as Bounce TV, Tuff TV and LATV feel it’s the right way to progress. “Early on, our commitment to stations as the first African-American broadcast network was that original programming was part of our mix,” said Jonathan Katz, chief operating officer at Bounce TV, whose originals include the sitcom Family Time. “There’s a clear gap in the marketplace, and there are affordable ways to produce quality scripted programming.”
The early days of the digi-nets saw a race to establish distribution, said Michael Kokernak, founder and president of multicasting consulting firm Across Platforms and editor of the Subchannel Report newsletter. The next phase, for many, is original and first-run programs. “Broadcasters have been losing audience to cable for well over a decade,” he said. “Subchannels are their last chance to reclaim some of that lost ground, and the only way to do that is to increase original programming budgets.”
Be Like ‘Me’
The success of Me-TV, Weigel’s classic hits net with 161 station partners, 91% U.S. clearance and Gilligan’s Island and Happy Days in prime, paved the way for a batch of retrothemed competitors. Those include Antenna TV and Cozi TV, along with film-oriented This TV, Movies! and GetTV. NBCUniversal Owned Stations scrapped its ambitious Nonstop local subchannels for Cozi, which has 60- plus affiliates and reaches 60% of the country.
Building a network on the backs of original programming is a tougher route. Cozi originals Being Mandela and Next Great Family Band did not see second seasons. Live Well Network appeared to be the model for original programming, launching in 2009 with a slate of series about food, fitness and other good-living topics produced primarily by the ABC owned stations, and signing up a strong batch of station partners to build its clearance to 64%. Last month, it announced the channel will go off the air in January.
“Despite Live Well’s tremendous accomplishments in distribution and original programming, we made a strategic decision that our priority must be local content,” said Rebecca Campbell, ABC Owned Stations president, in a statement.
Such failures make it that much more daunting for those creating originals. Yet some proceed. Tuff TV, for one, has a slate of reality, sports and first-run drama, such as the feuding car repair family featured in Auto Wars, to go with off-network programming. Lou Seals, Tuff CEO, believes multicast viewers want something fresh. “Can one or two or three classic channels survive and do well? Yes,” he said. “Can six or seven do well? I think the answer is no. I think people will tire of the classic channels and they’ll be looking for some variety.”
Multicast channels get creative to keep programming costs in check. Tuff TV’s hunting and fishing programming is typically underwritten by an events sponsor, and the channel is trying crowd-funding to increase programming budgets. It may be a tough sell; a $50,000 goal sat at just $30 at presstime.
Digi-net chiefs mention shooting numerous installments of a show in one session, and working with a less celebrated tier of talent than the major networks do. “Competition is tough for small outlets,” said Luca Bentivoglio, LATV COO, where the talker El Ultimo Pitazo (The Last Whistle) joins originals such as entertainment show En La Zona this fall. “We try to be very focused on following the audience, following the trends, following the revenue.”
Ratings Mean Ad Rates
According to Kokernak, a multicast channel needs ratings to prove it has truly emerged. Me-TV and Bounce TV are unique in that they are Nielsen rated. The Bounce folks, with 72% of the U.S. covered, are hopeful new original sitcoms Mann & Wife and Sisters can pop numbers the way Family Time has.
Successful networks have a mix of programming, believes Katz, and originals are a key part of that. “Agencies and clients have the expectation that you’ll be supplying original programming,” he said. “Originals simply drive a higher cost per thousand.”