Cable networks’ increasing appetite for original shows that set them apart from the competition is fueling growth at the broadcast news units that produce specials for sale.
Catering to cable networks’ demand for reality and documentary fare, ABC News, CBS News and NBC News are posting revenue gains and good, steady profits. As cable channels have become more like their ratings-driven, brand-conscious broadcast counterparts, they have sought series with compelling personalities and trendy hooks.
That has precipitated changes at the broadcast news divisions. Formerly, ABC News Productions, CBS News Productions and NBC News Productions had made modest money off shows based on news archives such as “Discovery News” for the Discovery Channel, historical overviews like “The 20th Century With Mike Wallace” and recycled newsmagazine segments.
Now they have separate units attempting to capitalize on the fact that reality shows are trumping news as a viewer magnet. On A&E, “Dog, the Bounty Hunter” killed “Biography,” which leaned heavily on news archives. A recent “Dog, the Bounty Hunter” special produced by NBC Media Productions scored the 23-year-old cable channel’s largest audience ever.
In 1999, CBS News Productions was first to break off a separate unit to accommodate the changing tastes of audiences. In the last decade, the two units’ revenue has doubled, a CBS News spokesperson said.
Each of the networks’ production-for-sale businesses makes a profit, although no one is willing to say how much other than to agree it is “very good and steady.”
On a recent Monday afternoon, a CBS EYEtoo Productions crew, composed primarily of freelancers, was at work on its third season of “The Next Food Network Star.” Shooting on the 12th floor of the Institute of Culinary Education, the day had started at 5 a.m. and wasn’t scheduled to end before 8:35 p.m.
This is the biggest-budget series Food Network does.
“It’s like producing `The Apprentice,”‘ CBS News Productions VP Margery Baker-Riker said. “It’s big.”
The cast includes contestants who compete to win their own Food Network series and a revolving panel of judges. Each episode of “The Next Food Network Star,” which debuts this summer, is shot at a different location.
Celebrity chef Bobby Flay was among the four judges thumbing their personal digital devices in a studio kitchen, where contestants were being put through an Iron-Chef-style challenge. Meanwhile, Food Network star Alton Brown kibitzed on cue as producers, associate producers and camera and sound people recorded the action from multiple hand-held cameras and lipstick cameras anchored on the countertops..
In the next room, crammed with huge pots and pans, TV monitors and consoles, sat another contingent of production staffers, two of whom are veterans of reality shows. That experience working without a script came in handy when one of the video monitors showed the studio filling up with steamy smoke. The crew couldn’t stop taping because the contestants were on a clock, trying to produce three courses featuring a secret ingredient.
In an effort to avoid the ear-piercing sound of the fire alarm, the windows in the “control room” are opened, which lowers the room temperature more quickly than it lets out the smoke, but things proceed without interruption.
It’s a small example of the quick-thinking ethos that makes teams with news experience particularly attractive to programming executives who need projects produced as efficiently as possible.
Ms. Baker-Riker was in Tiananmen Square in 1989 when Chinese students squared off against tanks in a plea for democracy.
After the Chinese pulled the plug on CBS News’ live feed from Beijing, Ms. Baker-Riker was dispatched to Japan carrying several reels of tape from Tiananmen Square. She stashed them variously on her body and in her clothing and luggage, so that if Chinese officials found one, they would not automatically find everything. All arrived in Japan intact.
ABC News Productions, which still produces some contemporary history and current affairs programming, begat Lincoln Square Productions to accommodate the increasing requests for new kinds of content such as shows with re-enactments, which are taboo in broadcast news.
“That’s enabled us to broaden our slate and diversify our product enormously,” ABC News Productions executive producer Lisa Zeff said.
Ms. Zeff heads a core full-time staff of about eight.
“What is completely different now, and what we concentrate on now, is approach,” she said. “Things have to be approached completely differently, in a brand new way. That’s tricky and it takes more time.” The biggest in-house studio is the combo of NBC News Productions and NBC Media Productions that evolved from the assembly line that kept as many as five hours of “Dateline NBC” on the Peacock Network’s prime-time lineup beginning in the 1990s. What’s known collectively as the long-form unit employs 150 to 200 workers.
Ben Rindge, late of independent powerhouse Banyan Productions, recently came aboard to ramp up development.
“We snagged him really to help turn the business into a more series-driven business, but also as a P.R. move, because he has a great track record,” said Sharon Scott, executive producer and general manager of the two long-form units.
“Dateline” executive producer David Corvo said NBC Media is producing two pilots for the network’s prime-time alternative programming department. NBC News Production is making “Models NYC” for MSNBC.
In addition to pitching to outside clients, Mr. Corvo said he wants to provide all nonfiction programming for NBC Universal. MSNBC, which last year cut back live talk programming in favor of a two-hour documentary block, will get at least 50 hours this year.
“That’s already more than a lot of companies do,” Mr. Corvo said.