HRTS panelists speak of programming flexibility -- to a point

For all the be-all, end-all importance that branding has for cable networks in this day and age, several top execs agreed at Wednesday’s Hollywood Radio and Television Society panel that too much tunnel vision can be risky.

“You spend a lot of time focusing on brand, but you have to take a step back and think about the way people see television,” AMC exec veep of original programming, production and digital content Joel Stillerman said at the HRTS Cable Programming Summit at the Beverly Hilton. “And I’m not sure people are as fixated on it as we are in terms of whether what we’re watching makes sense on any given channel. … People are more forgiving.”

That’s why, according to Starz managing director Carmi Zlotnik, you have to be open to deviating from your ongoing formula not only in style, but even in genre.

“The thing you want to make sure is (that) you don’t put on blinders, and somehow a great idea eludes you as a result,” Zlotnik said. “The unscripted world is a valid world where there’s a lot of great ideas. … It’s good for us, it’s good for our brands (and) it’s good for creating a stimulating environment around us to have a lot of different people coming in with different ideas.”

Added TNT, TBS and TCM programming topper Michael Wright: “You go to great lengths to say, ‘Here’s who we are, here’s who’s watching us, here’s the kind of tone we’re looking for … but feel free to (pitch) us that thing we don’t know we want, as long as you can explain why it works for this audience,’ ” Wright said.

Even a show whose cancelation comes too quick can serve a purpose, MTV programming head David Janollari said, citing the cabler’s one-season-and-done “Skins” (after joking “You’re really going to bring that up?” to moderator Billy Bush).

“It was the show that planted our flag in the scripted space, (helping) our audience to see us as a destination for scripted programming as well as all the reality fare, and I thought it was a valiant effort,” Janollari said. “It didn’t ultimately ignite a huge enough broad audience like the way we were looking for it to do … but it did a great deal with our audience in terms of establishing the direction that we’re going in.”

As ABC Family programming and development EVP Kate Juergens said: “You have to be loud in cable to get people’s attention, and in order to be loud, you have to be a bit edgy.”

To be clear, no executive was saying that branding didn’t matter, with Wright commenting that “we’re not in the business of trying to shove a square peg into a round hole.” Rather, they were acknowledging that the path to effective branding was not always a straight one, that there was room for going off script, so to speak.

“You have sampling loyalty,” Wright said. “You build up a level of trust with a viewer who has seen a number of shows, and they say, ‘These guys pretty consistently deliver a certain kind of show,’ then they’re likely to sample a new show.”

Said Stillerman: “People have what’s called a ‘consideration set.’ You want to be in that set. People form habits and they’re hard to break, so if you’re in the first three or four channels that they go to, that’s a incredibly valuable commodity that you have to protect. So, I do think people have brand loyalty, I just don’t think they’re as dogmatic.”

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