Couch potatoes rejoice over cable movie bonanza

Starz pushes against conventional wisdom with pix

Familiar theatrical movies can mesmerize TV watchers into something akin to helpless inertia.

“People will be surfing around their TV dial and stumble on a pay-TV network showing a movie that’s sitting on their shelf in a DVD,” says Larry Gerbrandt, senior associate in media-advisory firm AlixPartners. “But instead of shifting to another channel, they’ll sit and watch it.”

Gerbrandt’s analysis is music to the ears of the nervous executives who run the Starz pay network, which, he says, “is hanging its hat on movies, and nothing but movies.”

The Starz honchos are nervous because they’re pushing against conventional wisdom, which insists that the explosive growth of DVD movie purchases ($16.3 billion in 2003) has seriously eroded the value of theatricals by the time they get to pay TV (about 11 months after their debut in the multiplexes).

Certainly, Starz’s main competitors, HBO and Showtime, are hedging their theatrical bets by commissioning lots of original programming. HBO’s ongoing original series like “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under,” in addition to attracting sizable viewership, “are written about and talked about, in news columns, critics’ reviews and op-ed pages,” says Dave Baldwin, senior VP of program planning for HBO.

Kim Lemon, senior VP of research for Showtime, says, “We differentiate ourselves with original series,” such as “The L Word” and “Queer as Folk.” “Our customers have told us they want a mix of both theatrical movies and original content.”

Starz’s customers are telling them something different, at least based on the Nielsen ratings that the network has begun making public in the last month.

For example, from January through the end of October, seven of the top-10-rated cable networks among total viewers in primetime (both pay and basic) were heavily dependent on movies. (Among people 18-49, the number is seven of the top eight, with only ESPN’s popularity preventing a clean sweep.)

Suzanne Sell, head of programming research for Starz, says she’s eager to publish the ratings because they back up her thesis that the glossy production values of a big-budget theatrical can overwhelm TV watchers, “strengthening their emotional connection with what’s happening on the screen.”

Even if viewers have already seen the movie in the theater, on DVD or pay per view, she says, “there’s a familiarity that’s comforting about a picture like ‘Pretty Woman.’ ”

As Sell puts it, “The average cable subscriber has more than 100 channels to choose from, loaded with TV programming that the viewer has never heard of.” But they have heard of such ever-popular movies as “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Independence Day” and “The Wizard of Oz,” titles that harvest bumper crops of viewers every time a cable network slaps them onto the schedule.

But older movies like these are bellwethers of ad-supported cable networks, not pay channels, says Tim Brooks, senior VP of research for Lifetime.

One of the big selling points used by cable operators and satellite distributors to get new subscribers, Brooks says, is that you don’t have to pay an extra $12.95 a month for HBO to get access to hundreds of movies every week.

These movies turn up regularly, he adds, not only on the top-10-rated entertainment networks — TNT, USA, Disney Channel, Lifetime and TBS — but on ad-supported channels such as Sci Fi, FX, Spike, AMC, ABC Family and Hallmark.

Thanks in large part to movies, all of these networks have gained viewers in recent months, particularly among Madison Avenue’s favorite demographic, adults 18-49.

Scratching his head, Brooks says, “Every time TNT puts ‘The Mummy’ on, it gets a rating. What is it with ‘The Mummy?’ People don’t seem to get tired of that movie, no matter how many times they’ve already seen it.”

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