Cable Invests in Originals

Jan 11, 2009  •  Post A Comment

Despite the failing economy, cable network executives presenting new shows at the Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour said maintaining spending on original programming is a priority.
While tightened belts appeared to have kept some networks from attending the cable portion of the tour, which was cut to three days from last summer’s four, executives from the networks that did attend said they planned to have as much original programming on the air as they did last year, if not more.
Check out all of TVWeek’s TCA coverage here.
Conventional wisdom is that when times get tough, people watch more TV, rather than paying for other entertainment options, such as going to the movies. Viewing was basically flat in 2008, with broadcast down a bit and cable up. Cable networks see more originals as a way to continue to gain share.
“If you’re a programmer, in this economy, you have to take the long view and you continue to invest and you ride it out, and that’s certainly what the Rainbow Networks are doing,” said Ed Carroll, Rainbow Networks president.
“We’re continuing to invest in original programming,” Mr. Carroll said, noting that one of his networks, AMC, is making its biggest investment to date in a miniseries, the remake of the British classic “The Prisoner,” which was the subject of a TCA panel.
“In our world, original programming is the most important thing we do,” said Doug Herzog, president of MTV Networks’ Entertainment Group. “You sacrifice anything before you cut that.”
Mr. Herzog said he expected the networks he oversees to have at least as much original programming this year as last year. TV Land and Spike TV are actually increasing their commitments to original programming. And that means maintaining program spending.
“We’re in the TV business. It’s a business of hits. You’ve got to keep them coming,” Mr. Herzog said.
MTV is launching an unprecedented 16 new series over the next few months.
“We’re just trying to be cost-efficient and get the most dollars on the screen,” said Tony DiSanto, executive VP of series programming and development at MTV.
He said the key to being able to get that many shows on the air at a time when budgets aren’t overflowing is “a combination of finding ideas that break through and aren’t that expensive.”
That means that for every big-budget show like “America’s Best Dance Crew,” there’s got to be projects that work off a new model, like “College Life.” To produce “College Life,” MTV gave students cameras to film one another.
“It’s a reality drama with no filter, just them,” Mr. DiSanto said. “It’s a cost-effective model, but it’s organic to what the show is about.”
As the economy has turned downward, A&E has been expanding into original drama, which is expensive. A&E Television Networks CEO Abbe Raven said the company isn’t changing its plans.
“The way we are approaching our business is to continue to grow our networks, and we need to invest in a wide range of programming,” Ms. Raven said. “We have a commitment to have original programming as part of our portfolio.”
She said A&E is taking a judicious approach as it wades into original drama, introducing one new series last year, “The Cleaner” with Benjamin Bratt (which will return this season), and another new series this month, “The Beast” with Patrick Swayze. (Last week, Mr. Swayze had to go to the hospital for pneumonia due to complications from his cancer treatments rather than attending an eagerly awaited TCA panel Friday morning.)
Ms. Raven said it was too early to say how many dramas A&E would air in 2010. But dramas there will be.
“Even in light of the economy, we want to be a network with premium programming that attracts a great demo,” she said. “Great content and storytelling is what makes us a premium destination, and we’ll never stray from it.”
At National Geographic Channel, general manager Steve Schiffman said, “The economy has no impact on how we evaluate creating contact During bad times there will be more of an appetite for original content, whether it’s sports, drama, fact-based programming or news.”
Even with the ad market’s prognosis uncertain, there will be ways to monetize content, he said.
He said National Geographic has a reputation for quality programming, a brand attribute that has to continue through a downturn. So the network is looking to be more efficient and cutting spending in non-programming areas such as travel and entertainment.
National Geographic Channel hasn’t had to lay off any staffers, which Mr. Schiffman chalked up as a benefit of being part of Fox, which runs a very tight ship in good times and doesn’t have to make as many changes when business is bad.
“This is when it feels good to be a Fox employee,” he said.


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