Wake Up, Kids: Disruptive TV Is

Issue-oriented company aims to inspire social action among millennials with a cable channel launching this summer

(From the pages of the March 26 issue of Variety.)

“The last thing anybody needs is another TV channel to make the media conglomerates richer,” Participant TV prexy Evan Shapiro says. “The approach is to make every day matter for the executives here.”

That’s a gutsy comment from the head of a nascent cable channel, but it is in keeping with the mandate that Participant TV has set out for its Pivot cable network — which promises to be “credible, brave, disruptive” — skedded to bow this summer. Social change is, after all, the name of the game at Participant, which has been producing issue-oriented features and docus like “The Help” (pictured here) and “Waiting for Superman” (pictured up top) since it was founded in 2004 by Jeff Skoll. (Participant unveiled the name and other details of the channel today at a media event in Gotham.)

“We wanted to design a next-generation channel for the next generation of consumers and leaders,” says Shapiro, who joined Participant last year from AMC Networks, where he ran cablers IFC and Sundance.

The Participant TV team has waded hip-deep into research to shape the network for the 18-34 crowd, conducting ethnographies and quantitative studies of thousands of millennials in order to even better understand what it considers to be its target audience.

“We went to four cities, sat with (viewers) and watched how they watch TV,” says Kent Rees, Participant TV’s exec veep of marketing, scheduling and operations. “We looked at how they consume media, how they relate to it, how they talk about it and where their passion comes from. For millennials, social action is part of their lifestyle.”

Still, the question remains of exactly how to craft a new linear television network for a demographic whose native tongue is digital. Current TV tried a similar approach nearly a decade ago, but never gained traction with it — and that was before Internet video became so ubiquitous.

There’s also the problem of making sure that socially conscious programming doesn’t inspire yawns, as Oprah Winfrey learned the hard way with the launch of OWN.

For Shapiro, the answer is a dual-minded approach that offers on-demand content and compelling live TV. He cites the “fomo” factor, “fear of missing out,” as being an incentive for millennials to tune into a live broadcast.

“You watch the viewership of shows like ‘Walking Dead’ and they get a tremendous live rating with the 18-34 demo,” he says, because of the water cooler effect, which is amplified by social media.

To that end, “we’re working with our distribution partners to also create one of the most vibrant offerings through the digital space,” Shapiro says.

Participant Media started laying the groundwork for its cable network last year, when the company acquired Halogen TV and the Documentary Channel, giving it a subscriber base of more than 40 million cable homes in the U.S. The net, which will unveil its moniker at a media event in Gotham on March 27, plans to launch with six original series, plus acquired skeins.

“We’re looking to do a variety show, a docuseries, a talkshow, a reality program and scripted dramas,” says Belisa Balaban, Participant’s senior VP of unscripted programming. “All programming goes through the ‘credible, brave, disruptive’ filter. Everything we do has to pass through that, even marketing.”

The internal and development processes at Participant TV also break normal corporate boundaries. Shapiro says that lower-rung employees in the millennial demo are able to influence decisions about projects.

“Programming slates get their feedback before we go to greenlight,” he explains. “I haven’t seen that kind of approach before.”

Shapiro emphasizes that Participant is going into the launch with an understanding that the channel is part of a larger mission by many orgs to inspire social action.

“Traditionally in many of these media companies, you pick a brand and you are the voice, the comedy brand, the news brand,” he says. “We are not saying we are the social action network — we are one of the voices out there.”

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