Unlikely nets seek to make brand stand

The renewal of “Mad Men” was anything but assured: AMC was paying record license fees of about $1.5 million an episode and averaged only 1 million viewers.

But AMC has defied the odds, renewing the show for a second season as a way to begin the transformation from an all-movie network to a channel offering HBO-caliber scripted series.

AMC is just one of a bunch of unlikely cable networks that are investing heavily in scripted programming, often at great cost, in an effort to create new demand for their brand. Networks such as Oxygen, SoapNet, Animal Planet, Court TV, Starz and BET are either commissioning pricey scripted series, or developing them for the first time.

“People watch individual shows on broadcast TV,” says Steve Koonin, president of the Turner Entertainment Networks, “but on cable they tune in to the network.”

Turner’s TNT has the resources to shoulder huge license fees for scripted shows, which has paid off with high ratings this summer for “Saving Grace.” The summer also saw the success of such rookie series as Lifetime’s “Army Wives” and USA’s “Burn Notice.”

What is different is the number of smaller niche networks getting into the act, even with license fees that in some cases can be double the cost of a reality series.

“Madison Avenue is waving pom-poms and cheerleading,” says Laura Caraccioli Davis, a top media buyer at Starcom. “These originals help define some of these networks in the advertisers’ mind.”

Despite its subpar ratings, “Mad Men,” “has put AMC on the map,” she adds, praising its meticulous reconstruction of how the advertising business operated in the early ’60s.

As a corollary to polishing the brand, Brad Adgate, head of research for Horizon Media, says scripted series endow cable networks “with programs that their viewers can’t get on any other channel.”

Cable networks can employ that kind of exclusivity as a weapon in hammering bigger license fees out of cable operators.

“The programmers will use these hit shows as an excuse to demand more money from us,” says Scott Abbott, VP of programming for the National Cable TV Cooperative, which reps hundreds of smaller cable operators reaching about 14 million subscribers.

This leverage is another strong motivator for more networks to glom onto scripted shows.

Oxygen’s programming prexy Debby Beece took a stab at a scripted half-hour comedy last year with the low-budgeted, semi-improvised “Campus Ladies,” about a pair of middle-aged suburban women who enroll in college. The series drew only modest ratings over two 10-episode seasons, but Beece says she’s undeterred, commissioning script development from Linda Obst, Rob Tapert and other producers.

Another small-sized cabler, SoapNet, is drawing a number of young women new to the network with its first scripted series, “General Hospital: Night Shift.” It has started producing original series because its stock in trade — repeats of same-day broadcast soaps in primetime — is becoming less relevant in the age of the DVR.

As a result, more original spinoffs are in development at SoapNet, says Brian Frons, president of daytime for the Disney-ABC TV Group, citing “One Life to Live” and “The Young & the Restless” as eager candidates for cloning.

Frons acknowledges that “reruns of off-network shows are far kinder to SoapNet’s bottom line.” The network will have to develop “the stomach to deal with failure,” which comes with greenlighting expensive scripted originals, he says.

For every winner like “Burn Notice,” there are disappointments such as TNT’s canceled “Heartland,” the heavily promoted Treat Williams medical drama this summer that lost more than half of its lead-in audience from “The Closer.”

The evolution of “Burn Notice” is exhibit A in USA’s branding strategy of creating action and mystery dramas that don’t take themselves too seriously.

“I loved the writing in the original script of ‘Burn Notice,’ ” says Bonnie Hammer, president of USA and Sci Fi Channel, “but the atmosphere was seedy and dark, and set in the world of New Jersey drug dealers. So we moved it to Miami, and filled the screen with babes in bathing suits. And that gave us stories with some heart, and a twinkle in the eye.”

Elsewhere, Animal Planet hasn’t yet greenlit a scripted skein, but it’s moving closer and has begun the development process. “There’s a solid track record of successful series and movies featuring animals,” says Marjorie Kaplan, president and g.m. of Animal Planet. “Lassie,” for example, ran on CBS without interruption from 1954 through 1971.

BET is tackling scripted originals, says president of entertainment Reg Hudlin, at least in part because “the mainstream networks have lost the ability to cover middle-class black life the way they used to do back in the ’70s with ‘The Jeffersons,’ ‘Good Times’ and ‘The Cosby Show’.”

Shooting is under way in Georgia on 10 half-hour episodes of “Somebodies,” which is based on an independent movie written and directed by Hadjii, who’s also directing the series. It’s a comedy-drama about a group of college graduates “in that in-between period when they’re still trying to figure out a career track,” as Hudlin puts it.

Another network that skews young, IFC, is on its second season of two low-budgeted, movie-oriented scripted comedies, “The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman” and “The Business.” Evan Shapiro, executive VP and g.m. of IFC, says he’s developing future series by putting them on the network’s website. Two current examples: “Getting Away With Murder,” about a hit man who still lives with his nagging mother, and “Trapped in the Closet,” an “urban operetta” created by R. Kelly.

“Our audience is college kids, not the Kmart crowd,” says Shapiro.

Starz has a five-year plan to add as many as three hours’ worth of scripted primetime series to run in two chronological blocks each year (January to March and August to September), joining the trend toward pay TV original series pioneered by HBO and taken up aggressively by Showtime.

Two Starz series, both half-hour comedies, are already in production: “Head Case,” about a female Beverly Hills therapist, and “Hollywood Residential,” about a real-estate salesman with celebrity clients. Shorter shooting schedules allow these shows to be much lower-budgeted than the high-end TNT, USA and FX series.

These shows will start early next year, not during the summer, when cable usually slots its scripted originals to take competitive advantage of the glut of repeats on broadcast TV.

Look for December and January to become the next heavily trafficked months for cable originals, says Koonin.

As he puts it: “Those are big viewing months for one good reason: The weather stinks.”

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