Hillary Atkin

How Cable’s Top Programmers Are Keeping Their Channels on Top

Mar 6, 2013

Amongst them, they have hits ranging from "Girls" to "Hatfields & McCoys," "Game of Thrones" to "Duck Dynasty," “Southland” to “Dallas” and lucrative reruns of comedies including "Seinfeld" and "The Office."

The big topics of discussion as Nancy Dubuc, Michael Lombardo and Steve Koonin — the presidents of A+E Networks, HBO and Turner Entertainment Networks, respectively — took center stage at the HRTS State of the Cable Network Business newsmaker luncheon were the changing habits of the viewing audience and the branding of each of their respective networks.

Their conversation, moderated by former NBC entertainment chief and founder and chairman of Electus Ben Silverman, took place Wednesday, Feb. 27, at the Beverly Hilton’s International Ballroom, where a sold-out TV industry crowd paid rapt attention.

Most notably, cable networks are more aware that audiences are binge viewing, especially when it comes to series. Who amongst us hasn’t done it, or known someone who watched all 12 Season 2 "Homeland" episodes over a weekend? Or similarly immersed themselves in multiple installments of “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones” or “The Newsroom”?

That was the Netflix strategy when it recently released 13 episodes — a full season — of its original series “House of Cards” at once, a move that created a lot of buzz yet whose success is unknown — as the company has declined to release any numbers to date. If past behavior is indicative of future activity, we may never know the actual stats, although the perception is that this was a game changer.

Still, the timeworn television traditions of appointment viewing and water cooler conversations are not to be dismissed of yet by the people who oversee cable programming.

“It’s a showy thing to do but I’m not sure it is the best way to connect the viewer,” Lombardo said of the Netflix move. “Our hope is ‘Game Of Thrones’ becomes a Sunday expectation — we want to drive viewers to a night. It is about content that resonates. If people don’t respond, all these other conversations are meaningless.”

The panelists agreed that cable — basic and pay — has become a place where passionate storytellers from the feature world have migrated, albeit for less money and more creative freedom.

“The paradigm has shifted; serious adult drama is happening on cable. That’s what people talk about on Monday — it’s the cable show they saw, not the movies anymore,” Lombardo said.

“Netflix has to become HBO before HBO becomes Netflix,” remarked Silverman, who also cited the huge numbers of eyeballs on Google’s YouTube as a trend affecting the current marketplace.

Each of the networks finds branding a challenge. "Our networks are named after a founder — Ted Turner — while others, like History or Comedy Central, describe the content,” Koonin said before describing how TBS went for the tagline "very funny" and TNT aims to be known for drama with originals and syndicated programming. "We have to constantly define ourselves and consistently deliver."

Dubuc has successfully steered History into the new territory of scripted, following the blockbuster miniseries "Hatfields & McCoys" with this past weekend’s premieres of "Vikings" and "The Bible," which also found large audiences, paying off on the risk and expense of producing them.

“Our growth is all ad-driven, with three mature businesses,” she said, referring to A&E, History and Lifetime.

Lombardo noted that HBO cannot monetize its shows the way the others do, but can move the dial a bit in DVD and international. “We’re in a good position of owning our own content, but the off-market for highly serialized programming is challenging,” he said, while acknowledging that theatricals are still a huge part of the pay channel’s appeal, acounting for 75-80% of viewing.

As for the future, no matter the platform or the method, the panelists agreed that high-quality content is what resonates.

“The interesting thing about the digital world is that everyone is changing the rules. There are no rules anymore,” Lombardo said. “What’s the rulebook today will not be the rulebook in six months.”


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