Every network wants a “Mad Men” — an original, scripted series that hits it out of the ballpark and brings home Emmy prestige and zeitgeist buzz. That’s the kind of success that can lift a network out of the 500+ channel pack.
But prestigious original programming can’t do the job all by itself of branding or rebranding a network — and as executives eventually learn, it can take several turns at bat before launching that homer.
“The minute you think you can plan for that, it’s a fool’s errand,” says HBO programming prexy Michael Lombardo, who has also been overseeing Cinemax’s forays into branding via original programming. “What you hope is even if you haven’t hit it out of the box, the question is: ‘Are you in the right?’ ”
Cinemax’s first two shots at original programming — “Strike Back” and “Hunted” — were co-productions with mixed results. Neither exactly set the world on fire or solidly branded the network. Joining the mix in January was Alan Ball’s “Banshee,” the network’s first original show done entirely inhouse.
Cinemax is hardly the only network to take shots at branding success with inhouse originals. On the heels of last year’s multi-Emmy-winning miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys,” History landed big ratings in early 2013 with new drama “Vikings” and miniseries “The Bible.” Starz ended four seasons of “Spartacus” and two seasons of “Boss” but has launched “Magic City” and “DaVinci’s Demons” in the past 15 months, and BBC America bowed “Copper,” “Ripper Street” and “Orphan Black” last season.
Expansion into originals was critical for BBC America, says Perry Simon, general manager, channels. “Any cable network is going to be defined by its original signature programming if they’re going to grow,” he says. “That’s how you make a mark.”
But part of branding the channel, he adds, “was to make sure we were speaking with an American voice” and not that of its overseas owners. That meant recruiting American showrunners and writers — Simon had previously worked with “Copper” exec producers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson on several other series.
Not all producers-writers want to be in on that ground level, cautions Lombardo.
“It’s challenging to creators and a leap of faith,” he says. “We don’t have a long history with how we support our shows on Cinemax, and everyone wants a show they spend their energy, goodwill and passion on producing to be treated respectfully.”
Still, “Spartacus” creator Steven DeKnight (who is now working with the network on another series, “Incursion”) says he wasn’t worried.
“It was a bit of Wild West, frankly,” he says of the development of Spartacus. “No one expected it to be ‘that show’ that would help brand the network. They gave us an incredible amount of leeway.”
For Carmi Zlotnik, managing director of Starz Media, it’s about taking the long view.
“Our belief is the brand is the sum of the things you do in programming,” he says. “ ‘Spartacus’ was the first time Starz got any recognition, and our job is to build out from that.”
History and H2 exec veep and general manager Dirk Hoogstra, however, says it helps to already have some kind of brand foundation — in History’s case, reality programming. “If we had missed (with “Bible” or “Vikings”) our brand would be resilient,” he says. “Our reality ratings are what any scripted series on cable would love to be getting.”
Ultimately, all programming executives can do is plan carefully and hope something hits a chord with a highly distractible mass audience. And if something doesn’t catch, throw the line out again.
“You can’t know this stuff,” Lombardo says. “There’s a bit of magic to the gods of programming.”