Rainbow adds new colors to Channels

Media co. tries to differentiate IFC, Sundance

During a discussion about the recent redesign of Sundance Channel, executive VP and g.m. Laura Michalchyshyn described the concept behind the arty cabler as “the space between,” meaning the area it occupies between “mainstream” and “alternative.”  

Behind the scenes, however, there’s another “space between” on the minds of Rainbow Media execs — that area of differentiation separating Sundance and its sister outlet, the Independent Film Channel.

When Rainbow, the programming arm of Cablevision, acquired Sundance in May from the triumvirate of NBC Universal, CBS and its co-founder Robert Redford for $497 million, it found itself challenged to find profitable niches for two outlets both known for foreign, alternative and avant-garde content and which both seek urbane, upscale, politically engaged demos.

“It’s hard to create value for two different brands when they’re the same brand,” says Evan Shapiro, who in June was tapped as prexy of both channels after a three-year stint running IFC. “If somebody owned Coke and Pepsi, it would be difficult to get shelf space for both.”

With the channels boasting demos that are attractively male-heavy (70% in IFC’s case, and 58% for Sundance) and relatively young (median viewer ages of 34 and 42, respectively), Shapiro’s challenge may sound to some like a luxury problem. But with Sundance in only 31 million homes to IFC’s 50 million, putting as fine a point as possible on their respective brands will go a long way toward convincing cable operators to carry and keep both, preferably on an accessible (or D1, in industry parlance) digital tier.

“There’ll be a lot of overlap no matter what they do,” says television historian Tim Brooks, who likens Rainbow’s task to one faced by Viacom in cable’s salad days. “It can be a slightly different demo, a la MTV and VH-1, but even MTV and VH-1 overlapped a lot.”

With that in mind, following the Sundance acquisition, IFC accentuated its younger, edgier mien with the debut of “Z Rock,” a semi-scripted laffer about a struggling New York rock band, and the action anime skein “Hell Girl.” In September, it premiered “The Automat,” a Tuesday-night “content arcade” featuring musicvideo, comedy and animated shorts, while November saw the premiere of progressive newsmag “The Media Project.” 

“They’re affluent, they’re professional, they’re tech-savvy, they’re tastemakers, they’re on the cutting edge, on the cusp of what’s new,” says IFC executive veep and general manager Jen Caserta of her audience. “Very discriminating about what they consume.”

Heading into 2009, Caserta is aiming to bring more original programming into the mix. In addition to second seasons of “Z Rock” and skitcom “The Whitest Kids U Know” (the latter of which will air in 11-minute bursts inside “The Automat”), August will bring “Bollywood Hero,” a three-part comedy/musical starring “SNL” alum Chris Kattan. Execs have also greenlit a pilot for “Deeper With Dave Navarro,” a reality skein that will find the erstwhile Jane’s Addiction guitarist exploring “extreme” subcultures.

Sundance, for its part, has lately played up its environmentally oriented roots with the Isabella Rosselini-hosted skein “Green Porno.” In December it upped its baby-boomer cred with the much-lauded debut of “Spectacle,” a lounge-y music-and-chat show hosted by eclectic singer-songwriter Elvis Costello.

“Sundance Channel is about a story well told,” says Michalchyshyn. “It’s always about a strong character who we find to be intriguing, fascinating, and who allows us some unprecedented access.”

To wit: 2009 will bring “Lagerfeld Confidential,” a profile of the legendary designer; “Brick City,” a docu series chronicling the renewal of Newark, N.J., centering on its rising-star mayor, Corey Booker; and a concert film starring another Brit songsmith, Robyn Hitchcock.

Michalchyshyn also will oversee the debut of a handful of series for “The Green” programming block (among them, “Eco-Trip,” “The Lazy Environmentalist” and “Man Shops Globe”), all of which center around activist “eco heroes.”

Despite IFC’s upping of its shortform programming and Sundance’s growing stable of series, Shapiro says independent film will remain both outlets’ raison d’etre and inspiring ethos. But while IFC currently airs pantheonic foreign titles like Marcel Carne’s “Children of Paradise,” Gillian Armstrong’s “My Brilliant Career” and Jiri Menzel’s “Closely Watched Trains,” gold-standard imports like that will eventually be Sundance’s domain. By the same token, in January Sundance will mount a programming package around its eponymous Utah fest while IFC will strut its stuff at scruffier confabs like Comic-Con and South by Southwest.

Shapiro is confident the channels’ connection with off-kilter cinema will prove an ace up Rainbow’s sleeve. “The alternative is the mainstream now,” he says, pointing to the boffo multiplex B.O. of “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight,” two projects propelled not by Us Weekly-worthy A-list members but by arthouse vets.

“These are going to be two of the most important brands in popular culture,” he predicts of IFC and Sundance. “And when somebody says that they can’t be that, I say, ‘Jon Favreau, Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, and Heath Ledger.’ And when it happens, these two brands are going to have the kind of influence on popular culture that great art always does.”

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