Nets in need of schedule surgery look to remake their image
Cable’s love affair with makeover shows may be cooling — “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” is winding down and “Trading Spaces” has slowed — but network makeovers are hotter than ever.
When A&E threw out its arts and entertainment focus last year in favor of topical telepics and younger-skewing docusoaps, viewers came flooding in. TLC will dive into the latter genre with “Sheer Dallas,” about the Lone Star State’s high society. Lifetime also pulled in younger demos by revamping and recasting “Missing” with Vivica A. Fox and adding more reality to primetime.
Now, in a bid to get young and stay relevant in a crowded arena, several cable chiefs are renovating programming strategies, some of which have undergone serious nips and tucks.
Doug Herzog, who added Spike TV to his portfolio in January, is shedding the net’s excess with a less-is-more approach. “My whole attitude is fewer, but bigger and better,” he says. “It’s a world of white noise out there, so whatever we’re throwing out needs to stand out.”
Exec is keeping busy figuring out how to carve out a niche for Spike, distinct from his other male-demo net Comedy Central. Right now that means fewer cheap reality efforts and more dramatic endeavors.
“We’re going to try to get Spike into the scripted business because what it really needs is better originals,” Herzog says, emphasizing that priority one is to evolve Spike beyond “the first network for men.” “We’ve got two big-ticket entertainment franchises — ‘CSI’ and wrestling — so Spike really needs to look more like an entertainment network.”
In part, reconstructions are the byproduct of last year’s massive exec shuffle that sent Herzog to the Viacom family, Ted Harbert to E!, John Landgraf to FX, Mark Juris to Court TV, Bill Hillary to BBC America and Paul Lee to ABC Family, and saw USA and Trio added to Bonnie Hammer’s and Lauren Zalaznick’s plates, respectively. Shortly, Lifetime will name a new topper as Carole Black is scheduled to exit at the end of the month.
Bravo prexy Zalaznick will be honing in on the channel’s brand with a strategy aimed at keeping the momentum of recently concluded “Project Runway” going year round with a slew of rookie series.
Like A&E, Zalaznick is rapidly shedding Bravo’s stodgy arts image, giving the on-air look a colorful facelift and a new tag, Watch What Happens. Projects centered on Bobby Brown, Howie Mandel and Kathy Griffin will surface as will new cycles of the “Moms & Dads” series, HBO transplant “Project Greenlight” and “Blow Out.”
Exec says the new Bravo is about the other side of celebrity and the creative processes of entertainment.
“What we’re not about is unauthorized or exploitation,” she says. “On the other hand, we’re still an entertainment network. We didn’t do ‘Project Runway’ as behind-the-scenes documentary — which would’ve been the legit way to go. We set out to do a reality show, but a compelling one. We did the art of reality.”
ABC Family’s Lee will go out on a limb this summer, adding the first original drama to the channel’s lineup, “Beautiful People,” an unapologetically unconventional family hour. Since making the jump from fledgling BBC America to ABC Family last spring, Lee quickly established that the net, previously known for its sappy original movies and storied history, would diversify.
“Everything and anything we put forward will be about modern families in all their glory and dysfunction,” Lee says.
To help him redefine the net as an 18-34-targeted steppingstone between Disney Channel and ABC, Lee recruited Kate Juergens, a former exec at the WB, to oversee programming. In the coming months, ABC Family will premiere reality series “Las Vegas Garden of Love,” about a quirky family-run chapel, and “Beautiful People,” about a single mom who moves her two daughters from a small town to the Big Apple.
Lee also is making a push into the rarefied world of cable comedy. Projects in development include a series focused on a teen uncertain about his sexual identity, and another about a precocious teen Chinese girl adopted by Caucasian parents.
FX also is trying comedy on for size, albeit for an older set. Entertainment prexy John Landgraf has made it his mission to get the boundary-pushing cabler into the reality and comedy arenas, and is taking chances on a pair of low-budget laffers from lesser-known scribes and a reality series from Oscar-nominated “Super Size Me” director Morgan Spurlock.
Over at Sci Fi, prexy Bonnie Hammer is looking for her next hit outside of the space operas genre. Though “Stargate SG-1,” “Stargate Atlantis” and “Battlestar Galactica” dominate Friday nights on cable and each were renewed, Hammer is hoping two pilots can expand Sci Fi beyond space and aliens. “Painkiller Jane” centers on a sexy female action hero with healing powers and “Eureka” revolves a U.S. marshal who gets stranded in an eccentric think-tank community in the Pacific Northwest.
“Our next step is to create hits that live in other genres like fantasy or the here and now. We’re even looking at some unconventional comedy,” Hammer says.
Hammer’s other ward, USA, will be zeroing in on a brand in the coming months. Exec points to the success of FX, which secured its gritty, contemporary branding with just three original dramas and became the equivalent of HBO among ad-supported channels.
Some brand makeovers have drawn mixed results: TBS added Very Funny to its moniker in June and has drawn a crowd for its “Sex and the City” repeats, but struggled on the original series front with only “The Real Gilligan’s Island” delivering big numbers. TNT worked wonders with its We Know Drama positioning (and “Law & Order” reruns), but found it necessary to take a risk on original series. This summer it will bow new dramas “The Closer” and “Wanted,” its first originals since “Witchblade.”
USA execs are mum on details of the new positioning but Hammer reveals, “It’s not a giant left turn or right turn from where USA is now.
“It will be the first time in 27 years that we have a brand, and what I can say is that it’s going to be a relatable and accessible way to make a whole out of all our parts, including ‘Monk’ and ‘Nashville Star’ and ‘Law & Order.’ ”
Joining the already diverse menu are “Made in the USA,” a reality competish for aspiring inventors from “America’s Next Top Model” producer Ken Mok; an update of “Kojak,” toplining Ving Rhames; and the return of “The 4400.”
Comedy Central is on solid footing — having locked up net superstars Dave Chappelle and Jon Stewart for multiple years — but will branch out with narrative live-action half-hour “Stella,” from the trio behind “Wet Hot American Summer.” Herzog says he is intent on growing a latenight franchise with projects in the works from Adam Carolla and D.L. Hughley.
Ted Harbert is still shaping E!, already reworking news daily flagship “E! News” into a tighter operation. In his first at bat, Wayne Newton-hosted competish “The Entertainer” struck out, but docusoap “Gastineau Girls” shows promise. More important, Harbert is at work on several franchises for the cabler, which he believes will be key to heating up the entertainment network.
“After we all do a good job marketing and promoting, what does the viewer notice?,” Harbert asks. “My goal is not necessarily to have a volume play — though I plan to launch several more series this year — but to develop franchises, or umbrellas, that people can come to and know what to expect.”
For now, that means an investigative edition of “True Hollywood Story” as well as a real-people special. It also means viewers can look forward to spinoffs of channel breakthrough “Dr. 90210” that venture into the “90210” worlds of domestic help and possibly divorce.
MTV, the channel that revels in being everything mainstream TV isn’t, is finally finishing up its deal with the Simpson clan — “Newlyweds” hubby Nick Lachey will star in his own series this summer — but is staying ahead of the curve with Cameron Diaz’s “Trippin’,” which puts a twist on National Geographic-style specs by sending celebs into the jungle to deal with environmental issues, and “Wild ‘n Out,” an improv comedy competition with a twist hosted by Nick Cannon.
Music net also is gobbling up the teens with some lesser-hyped real-teen skeins: Cabler ordered another helping of “My Super Sweet 16,” a series that centers on extravagant 16th birthday bashes. Reaching new heights is long-running series “Made,” which documents a young person’s attempt to take on something totally different (i.e., a tomboy who wants to become the school play’s leading lady).
“Nobody writes about these shows, but they’ve done tremendously for us,” MTV Networks programming whiz Brian Graden says. ” ‘Made’ is all about youth empowerment and busting stereotypes. These shows don’t have big, sexy hooks, but that’s what makes them all the more incredible.”