Rebrand ‘Mad’-Ness Rampant at Rainbow Media

President/CEO Josh Sapan applies lessons from AMC to Sundance, IFC
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AMC was catapulted into the Zeitgeist on the stardust of Mad Men, and it's continuing to capitalize on the attention: Breaking Bad set a tune-in record for its third season opener March 21. Now, Rainbow Media is redefi ning the rest of its cable portfolio. Sundance has several docu-soaps in development and this fall will bow its fi rst scripted project: a miniseries about Carlos the Jackal. Last week, IFC introduced its biggest-ever development slate, along with a new tagline: "Always On. Slightly Off." And WE TV will unveil a robust slate of originals at its upfront March 30.

Rainbow Media President/CEO Josh Sapan talks to B&C Programming Editor Marisa Guthrie about the evolution of the company's brands, and how he measures network success. Following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

The success of Mad Men and Breaking Bad propelled AMC from being just another movie channel to an originalcontent destination. You appear to be positioning IFC and Sundance for this next stage as well.
Very much so. We think that with the distribution of IFC and Sundance having grown substantially and the brands having gone through stages of development, the time is upon us for those channels to go to the next level. That is really going to be captured, we hope, by a slate of original programming that will resonate the brands and in itself be very popular.

Many channels have started as highbrow arts destinations and are now something else, such as A&E and Bravo. Sundance has several docu-soaps and reality skeins in development, and IFC is ramping up comedy development. Yet both channels are inextricably grounded in their film libraries. How do you strike the balance?

I think that the answers need to vary by channel because if we are to be successful, we are going to need to be differentiated and distinctive. The fi lms that will continue to play on the channels will be strengthened by the nature and type of the original programming that we do. [Sundance Channel Executive VP and General Manager] Sarah Barnett described it as a rebooted arts channel. So, what we're doing with original programming on Sundance is very different. I would describe it as an exploration of creativity. I think it's true for past series on Sundance, Iconoclasts and [Elvis Costello's] Spectacles. I think it will be true for upcoming programming on Sundance.

I'll refrain from commenting on A&E and Bravo which, parenthesis, we used to own, so we certainly have a history there. And I would just say that the importance of the Sundance brand, of the Sundance Film Festival, suggests that there is a tremendous interest in the creative process. And it needs to be served up in a way that is accessible and inviting and urgent.

Mad Men has brought in new advertisers to AMC by attracting an affluent, albeit small, audience. Do you have to be a top 10 cable network to be successful? Or can you do it with original programming that may not attract a huge audience but does attract a very desirable audience?

It's not just the top 10 cable channels that can be good margin businesses. The nature of cable television is that if you're discretely serving or super-serving either a niche audience or an editorial mien, they can sustain very well. So, my answer would be no, you don't. The [cable] business is a good business and has been particularly good in the recent economic times.

But you need to be vital to a constituency of people who fi nd what you have to offer in brand and specifi c show content is something they put high on their priority list. And I think we see that across all of our channels.

AMC's slogan is "Story Matters Here." At Sundance, it's "For a Change." And IFC just unveiled a new tagline: "Always On. Slightly Off." So, what's in a slogan? What does it say about the brand? Do consumers need these slogans, or are they just for Madison Avenue?
What is perhaps most needed is some sort of consistent delivery on a promise. So, I would like to think when we say "Story Matters Here" on AMC, that we actually mean it, that we really do revere good storytelling. It's not just a line. The ability to articulate it is quite helpful because it hopefully makes it more memorable. But what's most important is the substance behind the promise. Similarly with IFC, it is nice language, but what's most important is that it represents something that a smart person is going to find to have meaning and is not going to be cynical about.

Mad Menis going into its fourth season. Breaking Bad just embarked on its third season. When series get beyond the third year, they get more expensive as license fees go up and the traditional three-year contracts for actors and producers are renegotiated. Is there more economic pressure as these series pass the third-year hump?
We can refer to that as a high-class problem, and one that's desirable to have time and again. That may be different for different networks with different economic constructions. For us, yes, there are some price increases as series go into multiple years, but they need not be astronomical increases. If the series are doing what one hopes they'll do, that means more audience and that's, of course, the right piece of math to have. But they also build momentum for the entire channel. And they hopefully infect the character of the channel so that they actually do work beyond their discrete exhibition. And that's not a rationale; that's actually the way the business really works.

What about ancillary merchandise? There have been
Mad Men-branded suits for Brooks Brothers. Banana Republic has promoted the show in window displays. Mattel is doing Mad MenBarbie dolls. Do these partnerships actually create more buzz than ancillary revenue?
Some of them are good pieces of business unto themselves. They create a three-dimensional incarnation of the show. If it's in, to use an overused word, the Zeitgeist and it knocks around in popular culture and it turns up in places like Banana Republic or Barbie dolls, it can have a disproportionately positive effect. [The March 23] New York Post, for instance, had an article on business lunches, and on the page is a picture of Don Draper and a description of what he eats and what he drinks during his lunch with Roger Sterling. I think that those things just keep the impression in the world and the marketplace of the show, and therefore it's very desirable.

Right, you got a full-page ad in the
New York Post that you didn't have to buy?
Yes, it's not paid for, so it's a little more credible.

WE TV has cornered the wedding market.

Hopefully we see it on WE TV, where we have a very loyal female audience. The audience has been growing every single year. We're up year after year, and we're in well over 70 million homes. And that has occurred amid a pretty competitive framework of women's offerings and a pretty rich cable landscape. WE TV has done something that no other channel has. The signature of [the channel] is its Sunday night wedding programming, which gives it a lot of its character. You can be very successful by doing something very well. You can be particularly successful if your brand means something to people and if the shows on it carry the meaning of the brand with it, which is the Holy Grail.

Basic cable is a player in original scripted television, especially drama. What networks do you consider competition for AMC? Other ad-supported cable networks, or HBO and Showtime?
Of course, we look at the competitive landscape. And we look at what other channels are doing. In the case of AMC, we have long thought that if we could occupy a place that could be described as "premium on basic," that we would have weight and importance and meaning because we would be serving up some of the best shows on television. And that would be an interesting conversation to have versus HBO and Showtime. And I would argue that the movie selection could also be found to be most desirable. What we observe [with movies] is [the immediacy] that the pay services trade in is something, and quality and desirability may be another thing. We do look at other [basic cable] services, and we do look at HBO and Showtime quite frequently. And we think that is company that we occupy across the board in terms of originals and movies.

Sundance Channel recently found a distributor in France. How important is the international business in terms of amortizing costs and generating revenue?
We distribute AMC in Canada quite widely, and that's been a healthy piece of expansion for AMC. And we are undertaking an initiative to bring Sundance and WE TV around the globe. Sundance is now in France, Belgium, Hong Kong, Singapore and [South] Korea. And WE TV is in Southeast Asia as well. We are producing more original programming that we have increased ownership in, and that means the ability to transport the brands. It's an important initiative for us. And we've found that particularly Sundance-as a brand and in terms of its content-has an instant appeal around the globe.

So, Bridezillas plays in Southeast Asia?
Actually, surprisingly well, it seems.

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