Living on the edge is never easy, but execs at Sundance Channel have concluded that it beats the alternatives when you face bigger competitors that can outspend and outdistribute you.
Shy away from challenging, mind-bending subjects? Not Sundance, which recently aired “TransGeneration,” an eight-part documentary snapshot of college kids struggling with changing their sexual identities.
Bank heavily on a dose of foreign and foreign-language films and series that can work better than wolfsbane at repelling middlebrow viewers? Yup. The network has one of the heaviest international programming complements of any channel.
And no worries if you are a filmmaker with an anticapitalist or anti-establishment labor of love guaranteed to offend all sponsors, as Sundance Channel is ad-free.
“Our brand, if you want to call it that, or our mission, is about risk-taking, discovery, diversity and opportunity,” says Larry Aidem, president-CEO of Sundance Channel. “As a noncommercial-advertising-supported network, we can do things quite against the grain.”
Such an approach fits the channel’s difficult-to-please 23 million subscribers, says Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming at media buyer Katz Television Group.
“That audience wants to be associated with cutting-edge artists and their concepts,” says Carroll, “but they want to be courted in a more subtle way.”
A good example, he says, is the net work’s “Iconoclasts” documentary series, which aired in November and December and featured one arts and entertainment icon interviewing another. The event series was produced by Sundance Channel and Grey Goose Entertainment’s production arm, with media support from the Conde Nast Media Group.
Filmmakers laud Sundance Channel for letting them push the envelope and retain creative control over their projects, albeit at the cost of receiving fewer network dollars.
When Xan Parker, creative partner Elizabeth Holder and director Ivy Meeropol decided to produce “The Hill,” a new Sundance Channel documentary series about the lives of staff members for U.S. Congressman Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), the Sundance Channel was one of the first channels they pitched, says Parker: “We really feel they understand what powerful storytelling can be done with cinema verite.”
Now the network is trying to broaden its appeal in a manner consistent with its mission.
“Over the past year, we’ve been evolving,” says Laura Michalchyshyn, who joined Sundance Channel as executive VP of programming and marketing a year ago. “Our new tagline, ‘Sundance Channel for a Change,’ says what we need to be: something different, an alternative that you won’t find on other network cablers.”
Most clearly, it means expanding beyond serving the film-fanatic crowd with insider looks at the indie filmmaking industry, says Aidem. Besides cineastes, a group he says represents 3%-5% of the digital TV audience, Sundance is targeting the 20%-25% of digital TV viewers highly interested in independent films but not fanatics, those who are interested in independent thought or who describe themselves as “creative.”
To expand its reach, the network relies upon Showtime and NBC Universal, who own the channel together with 20% stakeholder Robert Redford. Sharing those networks’ resources also has helped Sundance land bigger indie films that otherwise would be beyond its resources, Michalchyshyn says.
Aidem also supplements the network’s lean, 55-person staff with support from the sales staff of its parents and cross promotions on NBC Universal’s and CBS’ various media properties.
Sundance received a modest $78.4 million in 2005 license fees from cable operators, according to Kagan Research. (By contrast, Discovery pocketed $263.6 million from cablers in 2005 and A&E got $223.9 million.) Programming costs were $27 million in 2005. Aidem says the network is profitable and that there are no plans to add commercial advertising.
While Sundance has expanded beyond the offerings of the Sundance Film Festival, it has not forgotten its sibling. In fact, in 2005, it acquired 20 festival films, a record for the network. The network will also support this year’s festival by airing a locally produced “Festival Dailies” nightly half-hour program covering festival activities.