Reprieve for Net Reality on Cable Kin

Aug 22, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Three new summer reality series look as though they are going from the majors to the minors, but a trade down to the farm team isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world for the shows.

Over the past few weeks CBS’s music competition “Rock Star: INXS” had one of its three weekly airings moved, while Fox’s family reality/ comedy “The Princes of Malibu” and NBC’s legal competition “The Law Firm” were totally removed from their respective network schedules due to poor ratings.

In all three cases, the networks’ rapid plug pulling did not mean the end for the shows, which often frustrates the small but still committed audience invested in the series. Instead, all are moving to cable networks with the same corporate owner as their original broadcast networks. “Rock Star’s” Monday episode is now airing on VH1. “Princes” has turned up on Fox Reality and “Law Firm” will run on Bravo.

While the migration of original episodes of an underperforming series to cable is hardly optimal, there is an upside, said Hans Schiff, VP of packaging for the William Morris Agency.

“It at least allows the networks who have assets in cable as well as in broadcast to exhibit their work,” Mr. Schiff said. “It’s preferable from the standpoint that everybody’s hard work and energy is going into something and actually getting a forum, rather than getting dumped on the shelf.”

It’s a phenomenon that is likely to continue, said Craig Erwich, executive VP of programming for Fox.

“You’ll continue to see programming move [to other networks], because television evolves,” he said. “The business model evolves; the relationship networks have with their consumers evolves.”

For the broadcasters, the financials are clear-ultimately, repeats of more established programming garner better ratings and higher ad rates than shaky summer offerings.

CBS and NBC declined to comment for this article.

What it means for cable networks is at the very least an infusion of prime-time-quality programming. Serialized reality series such as “Princes,” “Law Firm” and “Rock Star,” which were disappointments on the broadcast networks, suddenly look like major players when put in the context of smaller cable audiences, Mr. Erwich said.

“No matter how lowly rated a show was, there’s still millions of people watching it,” he said of broadcast series. “This is a way to not alienate your customer.”

In terms of audience, perspective is everything, he said. “A show that gets 4½ million viewers on a broadcast network might not cut it, but to do a million or two on a cable network, that’s a big win,” Mr. Erwich said. “So nobody loses.”

What’s more, if the shuffled shows perform on cable at the same level they did on broadcast, that could translate to impressive audiences in the cable world, which tends to garner lower ratings than broadcast pulls.

Whether any responsibility for license fees is likely to change hands along with the shows in deals like these is unclear.

“There are significant deal issues that arise in regard to burning it off that way,” Mr. Schiff said, noting that none of his clients created the three shows in question. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the networks are looking to get some kind of rebate out of it.”

Depending on the deals they make with networks, reality producers may have different quotes, depending on whether or not their show initially airs on broadcast or cable, which means the big media conglomerates could lessen their financial loss.

The transfer of product from broadcast to cable isn’t new. Last October Fox dropped boxing reality show “The Next Great Champ” after four airings, but instead of canceling the show outright, Fox moved it to its corporate cousin, the cabler Fox Sports Net. But the spate of network-to-cable transfers of fresh product this summer has accelerated what looks like a growing trend in a world of vertical integration and a proliferation of pre-shot reality installments.

Like “Champ,” the three recent examples are intracorporate transfers. CBS and VH1 are both Viacom properties, Fox and Fox Reality are owned by News Corp. and NBC Universal controls NBC and Bravo.

The transfer of programming to a co-owned outlet, however, isn’t the only option for a failed series, Mr. Erwich said. Modest scripted hits or even ratings disappointments of short-lived series have found a new life on DVD, he pointed out. One example he gave was Fox’s failed drama “Wonderfalls,” which is bringing in revenues and satisfying an audience interested in the quirky, fantasy-filled show.

“We have shows that have not broadcast their full run,” he said. “It’s essentially the same thing. You’re just giving consumers another avenue to watch the show.”

In theory, scripted shows that don’t draw viewers could also migrate to cable after one or two disappointing runs, but unlike reality series, which are mostly shot in their entirety before they air, scripted shows are often shot just weeks before airing, leaving an incomplete run of episodes. “Wonderfalls,” which had a midseason launch and had completed its initial production schedule by the time it was canceled, is more of an exception than a rule.

Considering the sheer number of recent reality offerings, the failure of some network series isn’t much of a surprise, said Bob Boden, VP of programming for Fox Reality. “With the proliferation of reality this summer, it was inevitable that not every show was going to be a smash hit,” he said.

That network loss is a cable gain, Mr. Boden said, especially for his fledgling cable network.

“It’s possible we would have licensed it at some point anyway,” he said of “Princes.” “This is a great advantage for us. We’re not just showing episodes already broadcast on Fox, we get fresh episodes for our viewers.”

Being able to secure what had been the Monday night episode of “Rock Star” was a huge get, VH1’s Ben Zurier, senior VP of programming strategy, said.

“This is a program that we’ve obviously had our eye on very early on,” Mr. Zurier said. “The story really speaks to our audience. When the opportunity came around for us to get original programming out of it, it was incredibly exciting.”

For the music-heavy VH1, however, that does not mean all CBS product can be transferred to its schedule, he said.

“We can’t throw anything on our air because it happens to be available,” he said. “It is audience-specific, which means it is show-specific.”

Moving to cable may have worked for “Rock Star’s” two remaining weekly telecasts on CBS. Since the third weekly airing moved to VH1 on Aug. 7, the remaining telecasts on CBS have fared better in the ratings.

A spokesman for VH1 suggested the extra exposure on VH1 (which began repurposing all the show’s episodes Aug. 13) might be driving viewers back to CBS. Of course, “Rock Star” on CBS might be performing better due to its paring down to two episodes a week, while competition shows often grow as more contestants are eliminated.

Quickly moving to cable from broadcast depends on how many episodes have already been shot, said Brad Adgate, senior VP of research for Horizon Media.

“It really depends on how many programs they have in the can,” he said, noting that if the production of a full cycle of episodes is already finished, a modest return is better than nothing.

“They don’t have to hit a ratings home run,” he said of cable runs of shows originally targeted for broadcast networks, “Especially for the show that has already been paid for.”

Shari Ann Brill, VP and director of programming for Aegis Group’s Carat, described the phenomenon as “program sharing,” which can also include programming moving from cable to broadcast. The special airing of Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” on NBC in 2003 falls into that category, even if it was only a stunt to increase the show’s profile rather than a total transfer of episodes. This summer has also seen an example of broadcast-to-broadcast transfers, with CBS running four epis
odes of drama “Veronica Mars” from its sister network UPN in an effort to boost the show’s sampling.

But the use of “program sharing” is still subjective, she said.

“Depending on the show, sometimes you see it as a dumping ground; sometimes it’s an asset,” Ms. Brill said.