Cabler’s bland ambition

To lure auds, channels make switch

Bravo used to run ballet specials. Now it’s “Queer Eye.”

AMC used to have no ads and boasted about being in black-and-white. Now it shows “Jaws 2” and “Days of Thunder.”

A&E used to be the alternative to PBS. Now it has a bevy of reality shows.

As congloms gobble up cable outlets to rake in advertising and subscription revenue, the powers that be are pushing for them to grow bigger and go for broke.

In the eyes of these congloms, niche cablers represent their biggest growth opportunity. And mainstream — not niches — is the accelerator.

Hence, cablers are putting more emphasis on ad sales. And that means bringing in the young demos that advertisers want to reach, even if those new viewers don’t fit the cabler’s original niche.

The result? The content on those cablers is becoming indistinguishable from low-brow fare on broadcast TV and in syndication, and those once-prized niche audiences are being left in the lurch.

The strategy is working. In 2003, basic cable beat broadcasters and grabbed a larger share of audiences — and a 6 point ratings lead — for the second year in a row. What’s more, broadcast households dipped from 2002.

David Goldberg, president of Endemol USA, the company behind NBC’s “Fear Factor” and FX’s “Todd TV,” says the divide between cable and broadcast programming is eroding.

“The line between cable and broadcast has definitely blurred,” he says, adding that “Todd TV,” in which audiences vote on an everyday guy’s life choices, could “absolutely” fit into a broadcast network portfolio.

And matters of taste aside, viewers of all ages and sizes seem to be digging the reality wave.

“There’s no question that this broad genre of reality programming has really captured the imagination of everyone, including our target audience of upscale affluent baby boomers,” A&E senior VP of programming Bob DeBitetto says.

These cablers are now offering lineups that cater both to their existing core followings — and everyone else as well.

A sampling:

  • A&E, which now stands for “The Art of Entertainment,” is airing a “Survivor”-like win-a-home contest and the chronicle of an airport’s daily operations. Up next: “Dearly Departed,” a real-life “Six Feet Under” about the inner workings of a San Diego-based mortuary.

    Granada TV-produced docusoap “Airline” has been effective in dropping the cabler’s median age to 40, almost a whole generation younger than what the network had been attracting.

  • Newly christened GSN (formerly Game Show Network) has rejigged primetime to boost broadcast-style reality: “Fake-a-Date” toplines the original “Joe Millionaire,” Evan Marriott, while “Kenny vs. Spenny” is a competition show similar to MTV’s “Jackass.”

“The biggest drive for us is to have the biggest business potential possible. Having the assets of our parent companies (Liberty Media and Sony) allows us be much bigger than gameshows,” GSN prexy-CEO Rich Cronin says.

  • AMC has rid itself of the confining “Classics” rubric and opted to air more recent movie titles and to produce live shows.

  • MTV2 has begun repurposing MTV fare, morphing into a reality twin of its big sister and deep-sixing its round-the-clock videos strategy.

  • Fine Living, an emerging cabler increasingly dedicated to making quality lifestyle relevant and available to a broader audience, is showcasing “Your Reality Checked.” Show centers on aspiring entrepreneurs who are put through a weeklong guerrilla-style gantlet, fulfilling, for example, their dream of running a bed-and-breakfast.

  • E!-owned Style network has steadily shifted away from fashion fare in favor of lifestyle programming of the TLC/ Lifetime/HGTV variety.

    Ultimately all these cablers are interested in the 18-49 crowd, and execs are more willing then ever to step up to the plate to invest in reaching them.

    Last year, cablers spent $10.4 billion on original and acquired programming, a hefty increase of $1.34 billion from the previous year, according to Kagan World.

    Still, if history teaches us anything, it is that boarding the bandwagon is not always the right strategy.

    “Trading Spaces” copycat “House Rules” on TBS will return for a second go-round, but on the less important Saturday morning lineup. And USA will not be bringing back “House Wars.” The jury is still out on A&E’s “House of Dreams,” but initial numbers don’t look promising (see separate story).

    Cable and broadcast will continue to mirror each other, however, as long as young folks remain the main target of Madison Avenue.

    “It’s where the advertising dollars are, but it’s the same audience that broadcasters are after,” says David Martin, head of Fox TV Studios’ alternative division, the production unit behind “The Shield.”

    He notes that at Court TV, a channel focused on crimes and investigation, sellers pitch to two parts of the company places — the classic crime-driven group and the entertainment group, which fuels the channel’s primetime with more mainstream product.

    Internally, the niche networks want to buy things that are unique, even if they deviate from the channel’s core viewership.

    “Look at ‘Mad, Mad House’ on Sci Fi,” a spin on “Survivor” and “Real World” “That’s not science fiction,” Martin points out. “Now a show that might be good for Sci Fi might be good for three other cable networks as well.”

    And most of those cablers are all relying on reality shows — the only kind to break through network TV’s fall season, i.e.: “The Simple Life” and “Average Joe.”

    “Look at National Geographic Channel. It’s traditionally about travel and culture, and they’re doing ‘World Apart,’ where you take urban families and put them into remote cultures. That’s reality TV,” Goldberg points out.

    GSN’s Cronin argues that expanding the brand has historically proven successful.

    “Doing just gameshows was working well for us, but if musicvideos were working well for MTV more than a decade ago, why did they move away from that one genre? They’re now the channel of music and youth culture. I think the possibilities are so much bigger to develop a breakthrough hit if you can go to different genres.”

    Cronin, former head of marketing for Nickelodeon when the cabler was in its infant years, points out that Nick’s evolution from daytime preschool programming to kids-of-all-ages station was for the better.

    “There were some people that criticized it at the time. ‘Oh no, here is this commercial-free preschool network and now they’re going to ruin it.’ Well, look how great the network is doing now,” he says.

    A niche cabler starts feeling the mainstream itch when it hits 50 million homes.

    So what about the purists — those who’d prefer not to deviate from a channel’s original mission?

    Those inclined to serve the core audience, whatever the limited economics, are shown the exit.

    Bob Boden, former programming head for then-Game Show Network, was phased out right along with the old name. (Cronin admits that a minority who still “pitch the niche” still work within the GSN ranks.)

    Sometimes the impetus for going mainstream was more serendipitous than studied. A unexpected hit show led execs to consider more options.

    Take “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Bravo was originally was the home of arty movies and “Inside the Actors Studio,” but after the Fab Five exploded last summer, the channel enlarged its thinking. It’s now the place for all things kitschy and offbeat.

    Its upcoming slate: an improv docu-style look at couples in and out of therapy, a behind-the-scenes look at the world of Beverly Hills through the eyes of a high-end hairstylist, and celebrity gambling habits shot in a showdown for charity.

    “Bravo was a stodgy but well-respected network with a high appeal to an affluent, educated crowd. It’s important to maintain that position, but I also want to make the channel more contemporary and more popular,” Bravo prexy Jeff Gaspin says.

    Gaspin was also at the helm of VH1 when it launched the channel-defining series “Behind the Music.”

    He explains that when a cabler tries to broaden out, “that’s when you see networks borrowing from others. The truth is that’s what I had to do at VH1 and at Bravo — it’s the way you do it that is important.

    “Doing a biography series at VH1 wasn’t anything new, but we gave it enough of a twist that it reinvented the genre,” Gaspin adds, noting the importance of appealing to the mainstream.

    “You want to be trendy, but you don’t want be first out, and so far ahead of the curve that people miss it.”

    Or consider FX. Once auds and critics alike became enamored of cop drama “The Shield,” the cabler figured it could be basic cable’s HBO. It went on to spawn the sizzling sudser “Nip/Tuck” and the quirky “Lucky”: the first scored two Golden Globe noms and the second an Emmy nom.

    Finally, the doc-heavy Learning Channel morphed into TLC: Life Unscripted once the surprise format “Trading Spaces” became the basic cable’s program behemoth.

    Nonetheless, cable toppers maintain that the bulk of their schedules still serve loyal auds — but admittedly that is now mostly relegated to daytime. Primetime is saved for the new guilty pleasures.

    GSN will program classic gameshows into dayparts and A&E will continue to satisfy veteran viewers with musty but meaningful minis.

    As A&E topper Abbe Raven puts it, “As we bring more people into the tent, we can expose them to our signature series as well.”

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