Cable finds cachet in catchy pix

Niche nets lure viewers to original series

NEW YORK — Cable TV’s raging love affair with movies shows no signs of cooling down.

No matter how many DVDs of specific titles get sold, or how many people check out the pictures on pay per view and pay TV, movies still shore up the schedules of dozens of ad-supported cable networks, sometimes more than a decade after their theatrical release.

That’s the essential point contained in a research study focusing on people 18 to 49 put together by Warner Bros., which reports that 15 of the top-25 individual programs slotted during the 2004-05 season were theatrical movies. Theatricals are so successful, in fact, that the nets are using them as promo platforms for their originals.Three networks — USA, TBS and TNT — carried all of the 15. USA grabbed the top two, “The Bourne Identity” and “The Mummy Returns,” and the next four among adults 18-49 were TBS titles: “Twister,” “Spider-Man,” “The Replacements” and “The Waterboy.” TNT landed two of the next three slots with “Gladiator” and Jennifer Lopez’s “Enough.”

Even more telling, the survey reported that the 10 highest-rated programs on TBS in 2004-05 among 18 to 49s were movies. Eight of TNT’s top 10 and seven of USA’s were theatricals.

While the powerhouse cable networks are scoring big with movies, Eric Frankel, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Cable Distribution, says theatricals also regularly drive more viewers to niche networks than other forms of programming like series or specials.

“I’m selling movies to more networks, to a wider range of networks, than ever before,” says Frankel, citing such buyers as Logo, Speedvision, VH1 and CMT: Country Music TV.

Warners says eight of WE: Women’s Entertainment’s top-10 shows were movies, led by “Groundhog Day,” “Sixteen Candles” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” but that’s not surprising: WE schedules movies every night.

VH1 landed three movies in the Warner analysis: “8 Mile,” “Friday” and “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.”

VH1 has newer movies coming up like “The Fighting Temptations,” “Be Cool” and “Drumline.” But Ben Zurier, senior VP of program strategy for VH1, says the network’s success with pop-culture nostalgia has also spurred it to buy older titles like “The Blues Brothers,” “Wayne’s World” and “Footloose.”

Like VH1, Comedy Central, whose “Blue Collar Comedy Tour: The Movie” shows up on Warner’s survey of high-rated titles, is not going to try to outbid the steroid-fueled networks like TNT and USA for new movies.

“We’ve gotten into the mix for ‘Wedding Crashers,’ ‘Legally Blonde’ and ‘Barbershop,’ ” says David Bernath, senior VP of programming for Comedy Central, “but we’re not in the first position.”

For example, after TBS gets its runs of “Wedding Crashers” and “Legally Blonde,” Comedy Central will pick up some runs during the last year of a five-year network-window license term.

CMT: Country Music TV is another net that has stepped up its movie buying, says Mary Beth Cunin, VP of program planning and scheduling for CMT. Even though music is CMT’s stock in trade, the network has bought movies like “Thelma & Louise,” “A River Runs Through It,” “Norma Rae” and its two most successful titles of 2004-05: “Road House” and “Great Balls of Fire.”

Oxygen finessed its way into the big leagues in December when it ponied up more than $60 million for shared-window rights to 21 Warner Bros. movies, including “Ocean’s Twelve,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Miss Congeniality 2.”

Debby Beece, president of programming for Oxygen, says she can’t wait to use some of the most prominent movie titles in her portfolio as lead-ins and promotional platforms for the original comedy series “Campus Ladies.” The show premieres in January and is being groomed as a potential signature series for Oxygen.

Since almost all entertainment-based cable networks are hell-bent on commissioning original series, the motivation for buying theatrical movies has changed in the past few years.

Instead of movies as ends in themselves, theatricals have become, at least in part, glorified marketing tools employed by cable networks to get people to watch the firstrun stuff.

“We love movies,” says VH1’s Zurier. “But we really love them when they help us to successfully launch our original series.”

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