Satcaster to enhance, rebrand 101 Network as Audience Network

DirecTV is devoting more resources to building its own premium channel in a bid to better harness the platform provided by its 19 million-plus subscribers.

As of June 1, the satcaster’s in-house 101 Network will be rebranded as the Audience Network. DirecTV plans a big marketing push for the change, which dovetails with the mid-July launch of the new season of “Damages.”

DirecTV execs are considering taking selective shots on licensing wholly original series. The satcaster is in early discussions on a few projects, including prospective shows from Denis Leary’s Apostle banner and from Tony and Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Prods.

Acquired programs from other English-lingo territories and older shows with strong fan followings, a la “The Wire” and “Deadwood,” will continue to be a big part of the mix. But DirecTV is less likely to be as aggressive in picking up contempo shows from other nets, as it did with NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” and “Damages” after it was axed by FX.

Derek Chang, DirecTV’s exec veep of content strategy strategy and development, and Chris Long, senior veep of content strategy and development, told Variety they view Audience Network as an opportunity to program their own pay TV-style channel and make it a big selling point for DirecTV with subscribers.

“We call it giving subscribers a premium channel without having to pay a premium price,” Long said. “We see our wheelhouse as programming that is edgy and thought-provoking.”

Chang said they are not averse to picking up shows that may be in jeopardy at other nets “but we’re not going to be defined as a narrow channel that exists to save shows,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to us how we acquire the programming. For us, building the Audience Network is more about what we can deliver that is exclusive to our customers and fits the criteria of what we want it to be.”

Audience Network will also continue to serve as a promo showcase for other networks, particularly HBO, Showtime and Starz. All three pay cablers have used the 101 Network platform to offer viewers a free peek at selected programs.

With original programming, Long stressed that they will have to be very selective and creative making deals. For starters, they’re looking for projects that come in the door mostly fully formed.

“It’s not one of those things where people can come in and say, ‘The pricetag for this is X.’ We’re looking at new kinds of business models,” Long said. “I don’t have $30 million in development money to make guesses. We have to be absolutely sure that the choices we make are smart choices. The people we’ve talked to so far have shown us that they’re open to different kinds of business models.”

A promo campaign for the Audience Network rebrand will begin rolling out on DirecTV on Monday. The spots will point viewers to find it on channel 239, rather than 101, because the 239 slot puts Audience Network in the neighborhood of USA, TNT and TBS on DirecTV’s lineup — the same viewers that Chang and Long want to draw to Audience Network (it will still be available on the 101 channel, among others).

The 101 Network bowed in 2006 with the music concert series “CDUSA.” More shows were gradually added to the mix, but it was the unusual program-sharing arrangement DirecTV cut with NBC in 2008 for “Friday Night Lights” that gave the channel its first real traction with viewers.

Audience Network is programmed 24/7 without commercials, though the execs said they haven’t ruled out the idea of adding blurbs down the road. This year, the 101 Network is averaging a cumulative aud of 4 million viewers a week.

In addition to “Damages,” shows that will be prominent on Audience Network this year include Brit imports “Mutual Friends,” “No Heroics,” “How Not to Live Your Life,” Oz’s “Rake” and Canada’s “Call Me Fitz.”

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