By Andrew Hampp
It started as an offhand remark.
In summer 2009, "Will & Grace" actor Sean Hayes and Todd Milliner, a producer, were hoping to sell TV Land President Larry Jones some reality shows the cable network was seeking. Both concepts struck out. Then Mr. Hayes threw out an impromptu thought. "We have this scripted idea, but you guys aren’t doing scripted, are you?’"
He wasn’t, but Mr. Jones listened to the four-sentence pitch anyway — and by the time Mr. Hayes picked up his car from the valet "we had already bought the show," Mr. Jones said. "It was one of those little machines where all those little balls fall into place perfectly. It was very much a no-brainer."
That meeting helped launch TV Land into the leagues of NBC, ABC and CBS when it comes to the most in-demand new sitcoms on marketers’ media plans for this year’s upfront. It’s a big shift for the Viacom cable network, which had often been a second- or third-tier choice for most marketers (and viewers) with its lineup of classic-TV reruns such as "I Love Lucy," "Bonanza," "I Dream of Jeannie" and "All in the Family."
The strategy has helped TV Land find original sitcoms that hark back to the comfortable ones of yore while also competing with the most-current broadcast fare — a blend that has managed to help the network hold onto its core baby-boomer audience while growing viewership among the advertiser-desired demographic of 18-to-49. "Hot in Cleveland," co-starring Betty White, finished its first season last summer with an average weekly audience of more than 4 million viewers, and the first half of its second season was watched by over 3 million viewers each week this winter. A second series, "Retired at 35," starring George Segal ("Just Shoot Me") and Jessica Walters ("Arrested Development"), also debuted to a promising start with an average 1.4 million viewers tuning in to its first season.
Now the network is readying the June premiere of a third original series, "Happily Divorced," starring "Nanny" veteran Fran Drescher and John Michael Higgins, and 10 new episodes of "Cleveland," with a fourth sitcom on the way ("The Exes," starring "Seinfeld"’s Wayne Knight and "3rd Rock From the Sun’s" Kristen Johnston), a second season of "Retired" set for early 2012 and a "Cleveland" spinoff in development for guest star Cedric the Entertainer developed by Messrs. Hayes and Milliner.
Both "Cleveland" and "Retired" have helped TV Land achieve its highest ratings in five years. First-quarter 2011 ratings alone were up 35% in total viewers, enough to rank No. 24 out of all cable networks, just behind NBC Universal’s Bravo and ahead of Viacom siblings BET, Spike and VH1. TV Land also posted a 30% boost among adults 18 to 49, the most ad-friendly demographic, enough to rank the network No. 28, according to Nielsen Media Research. It’s also helped land the network in the sweet spot of baby boomers, their target audience since a 2006 rebrand, while growing among 18-to-34-year-olds (up 16% in first quarter).
"They’re going after a different audience for comedy, which sets them apart. With most comedies you want to go after a younger viewer, but here their median age is 55, which is great for them," said Brad Adgate, senior VP-research at Horizon Media.
The ratings momentum has also boosted ad sales, with measured ad revenue up 19.6% in 2010 to $374.26 million, according to Kantar Media, and widened its appeal. The network added 60 ad clients to its roster last year, and 31 in the first four months of 2011.
Such renewed interest has prompted TV Land to introduce a "network-replacement" strategy to advertisers as part of its upfront offering, led by Jeff Lucas, head of sales for MTV Networks’ Music and Entertainment groups. Beginning this summer, ads for original TV Land series will be available to marketers on a show-specific basis — a departure from the cable norm, which is to sell ads on a "run of schedule," or daypart basis. "Hot in Cleveland" has also welcomed brand integrations from marketers like Three Musketeers, Nice ‘N Easy shampoo and Skype, while "Retired at 35" found a recent storyline integration for eHarmony.com.
"Advertisers want to buy a certain way, and most quality programming on cable is only sold as part of a larger prime-time buy," Mr. Lucas said. "TV Land has always had appeal, but now it’s a priority."
TV Land’s investment in traditional "live in front of a studio audience" sitcoms comes at a time when most networks are abandoning the format. NBC, ABC and Fox have all gravitated toward single-camera and documentary-style comedies like "The Office," "Modern Family" and "Traffic Light," with only CBS standing by the format for shows like "Two and a Half Men," "$#*! My Dad Says" and "How I Met Your Mother." On cable, BET broke records by reviving CW castoff "The Game," the highest-rated sitcom in cable history, and TBS has found years of success in Tyler Perry’s "House of Payne" and "Meet The Browns." Many multicamera sitcoms have become too expensive for most broadcast networks to sustain ("Friends," "Seinfeld" and "Frasier" each cost an average $3 million to $5 million an episode in their heyday), with single-camera offering a much more affordable $800,000 to $1.1 million per episode price tag.
But TV Land is producing this new batch of traditional sitcoms with an eye toward efficiency, consolidating all of its production to the famed CBS lot in Studio City that once hosted "Mary Tyler Moore," even sharing sets for some shows. "We shot our pilots on two different stages, so the walls are basically the same. We think there’s ways for us to get the costs a little bit more in control," Mr. Jones said. Talent, however, is paid at a broadcast-competitive rate, which explains why TV Land has been able to attract the likes of Ms. White and her "Cleveland" co-stars Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick as well as "Happily Divorced’s" Ms. Drescher.
But don’t expect TV Land to give up on acquiring more classic sitcoms just yet. Recent additions "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "Roseanne" have helped stabilize ratings and served as lead-ins for the original series, and the new generation of CBS sitcoms will soon be up for cable-syndication rights.
"Acquisitions are still a major part of our business. We’re not taking the gas off that," Mr. Jones said. "But the response to the originals has been phenomenal. The marketplace is really excited about having a network alternative. We’ve heard people say, ‘This is like buying CBS but not at a CBS price.’ They really appreciate having another option."