During the last several years, the creation of original series has become a vital element in branding a cable network. Some programmers have been at it for a while, and others are relatively new to the original series genre, but all are constantly searching for the shows that will distinguish them from the competition.
Capitalizing on the current success of breakout cable hits such as FX’s “The Shield” and MTV’s “The Osbournes,” as well as the sustained acclaim for HBO’s original series, cable networks have seized the momentum when it comes to a genre once claimed solely by broadcast networks.
The focus on original series has become more passionate of late, given that some of the most successful series are not just tops in the cable world but are among the most successful TV shows overall. “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” have won a number of Emmys, and others, such as “The Shield,” are making ratings history.
A hit series is among the fastest and surest ways a network can make its mark, said Jeff Wachtel, executive VP of series and long-form programming for USA Network. “A long time ago, USA was a leader in original programming, and it kind of lost its way over the last few years,” he said. “Now there is nothing more important than original programming and original series in particular.”
Cable networks have dabbled in original series for at least the past two decades. For example, HBO’s “1st & Ten” ran in the ’80s, and Showtime’s “Red Shoe Diaries” and USA’s “Silk Stalkings” in the early ’90s. However, only in the past five years have cable networks moved aggressively with series, said Tim Brooks, senior VP of research at Lifetime.
HBO can take a lot of credit for that, said Rich Ross, president of entertainment for the Disney Channel. “I think it’s evolved over the last five years as cable has come into its own with the rise of HBO’s Sunday night,” he said.
If a network wants to grow, it must produce original series, which serve to differentiate networks, said Mike Goodman, analyst with the Yankee Group in Boston. “You can only get so big by showing network reruns,” he said.
USA is refurbishing the network’s image this year and plans to tackle original series for the first time in several years with the launch of “Monk,” about an obsessive-compulsive detective, and “Dead Zone,” based on characters from the Stephen King novel. “A successful series does the two biggest things for your network-differentiates you and builds audience loyalty,” said Mr. Wachtel.
A hit series can also prove the network’s value to cable operators, send a message to advertisers that it can deliver-and help bolster credibility within the creative community, said Peter Liguori, president and CEO for FX Networks. While FX’s first original series was “Son of the Beach,” which launched in 2000, “The Shield” marks the coming of age of the network, he said.
While it may be tempting to bask in the acclaim of a hit show, that’s a dangerous proposition, warned Mr. Liguori. “The easiest mistake we can make is to put something on to fill a slot. We need to put something on we believe in,” he said.
There’s no magic formula for developing a hit. It takes “doggedness” in finding programming that fits the brand and patience in waiting for what’s right for the network, Mr. Liguori said.
MTV is relishing the success of reality sitcom “The Osbournes,” but don’t expect to see another MTV show like that anytime soon, said Brian Graden, president of entertainment for MTV as well as MTV2 and MTV.com. “If we are having a current success, our strategy is not to do it again. In TV, if lightning strikes it is best to leave it alone and not try to redo it, because it’ll just be seconds,” he said.
Originals are not new to MTV, which broke ground with “Real World” and now counts no less than 25 original series, Mr. Graden said. The viewers of MTV, the 18 to 24 generation, consider it one of their primary networks, and they expect originals on a regular basis. Keeping the model fresh requires “constant, constant experimentation,” he said.
Networks also need a business model that makes sense. “We have to find ways to produce hits for as low as $50,000 an episode,” Mr. Graden said, adding that producing some reality shows can be that cheap. However, MTV also produces series that are as expensive as $750,000 an episode.
Other networks don’t expect to make money with original series. “It’s a loss leader. You do it to build a brand,” said Lifetime’s Mr. Brooks. He estimates that a Lifetime series costs from $1 million to $2 million per episode. They only pay off if they last long enough to be stripped, which usually means at least three to four years, he said.
The long-term economics for cable networks are promising, though, because they can monetize the costs over time by running the shows again and again, said Yankee Group’s Mr. Goodman. “Even if it is a low-rated show, you can show it multiple times and you can generate revenue over multiple airings,” he said.
In addition, cable networks make larger initial commitments to shows than broadcast networks do. Most cable series run for at least 13 episodes and aren’t usually yanked off the air if they struggle early on. Disney Channel tests its shows rigorously in focus groups after every few episodes before they make it to air, said Mr. Ross. “It’s vitally important for us to hit a double each time. Network TV is just praying for a single each time,” he said.
That commitment helps attract creative talent, Mr. Ross said. Disney Channel tries to nurture talent, as it did when it cast Christy Romano, star of its series “Even Stevens,” in its movie “Cadet Kelly.”
When a show is successful, it does inform future programming choices, he said. Given the success of “Lizzie McGuire,” it’s no coincidence that “That’s So Raven,” slated for 2003 and starring Raven-Symone, features a female lead, and this summer’s launch, “Kim Possible,” includes a female co-lead, Mr. Ross said.