There have been "three ages" of cable television programming. Long ago, cable was simply a way to receive a clearer picture from broadcast stations. Then, in the 1980s, it evolved into a vast warehouse of reruns of old network series that hadn't been seen in years. Now it has become a major original-programming force in its own right. And for good reason. The one type of programming that has contributed significantly, time after time, to building the great media brands that define cable is original programming.
Think of The Sopranos
and you think HBO. South Park and it's Comedy Central; Strong Medicine is Lifetime. How about TLC's Trading Spaces? We can go on and on, from Disney Channel's Lizzie Maguire to Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, but the underlying theme is that cable's branding success has been built on original series.
Remember when MTV was only music videos? It was under serious attack from music companies that wanted to create their own music-video network; understandable since these were their artists. So, to secure its brand, MTV developed a show called The Real World,
and the rest is history. In the mid '90s, Lifetime launched Any Day Now, which became immensely popular, defining the network as a place for quality dramatic programming, followed in short order by Strong Medicine, The Division
There will always be a place for reruns on cable and even for "museum" channels carrying old series, but to become a "must have" network demands original programming.
If there's any doubt that a preponderance of cable networks is following this formula for success, consider the summer of 2003. More than 40 original series premiered, an increase of one-third over 2002. Nip/Tuck, Queer Eye, Peacemakers
and 1-800 MISSING were among the hits. But Peacemakers would never run on Lifetime, while Nip/Tuck would not likely be found on Nickelodeon. The programs each network runs are carefully tailored to its audience. Branding, branding, branding.
What is the value of a powerhouse brand? A successful hit series can catapult a network, as FX learned with The Shield. Bravo, widely respected for its programming but with little viewer support, leaped to national prominence with Queer Eye.
When cable operators must justify carrying a network, they make determinations based, in part, on whether that network is delivering something different and unique. And when cable has to prove to Madison Avenue that our industry should be the preferred choice for ad dollars, the argument is fueled by showing a distinction between cable and broadcast. Why advertise on cable if you can get the same show—first-run—on a broadcast net?
Research focus groups consistently demonstrate the fact. When I worked at USA Networks, no one identified Murder, She Wrote with USA; they placed the show with its original network, CBS.
Tim Brooks is executive vice president, research for Lifetime Networks.