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Original programming helps forge identity

Channel needed own movies, series to make a splash

Inevitably, there comes a moment in every young cable channel’s life when its voice drops a little and it realizes that it’s growing up and has to branch out.

MTV discovered adolescence way back with “Remote Control.” For TLC, it was “Trading Spaces.” With Sundance Channel, the coming-of-age project may have been “The Staircase.”

For most of its existence, Sundance struggled to stand out as a movie channel in a cable universe full of them. Even its role as a showcase for independent cinema was duplicated to an extent by IFC.

So when Laura Michalchyshyn was hired last January as the channel’s executive VP of programming and marketing, she was given a mandate from Sundance CEO Larry Aidem to make a push into original programming.

In looking over the channel’s recent acquisitions, she came across “The Staircase,” Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s six-hour documentary about the murder trial of author Michael Peterson. Everyone was high on the project, but no one had an idea of how or when to show it.

“I said, ‘This should be a platform for a major campaign,’ ” Michalchyshyn recalls. “It was just taking a look and saying, ‘This is a series, first and foremost: It has a capability to hold an audience over multiple weeks, it doesn’t have to be pigeonholed into a daytime or latenight slot, and we can present it as a major project.’ ”

Aired over four weeks last April, “The Staircase” got far more press attention than anything the channel had done since its debut in 1996. The execs were right: Sundance needed its own movies and series to make a splash.

“The Staircase” was followed by “Slings & Arrows,” a Canadian comedy about the oddball actors at a prestigious Shakespeare festival; “TransGeneration,” a documentary series about four transgendered college students; “I Am NOT an Animal,” a British animated comedy about lab animals; “Iconoclasts,” in which celebs interview their inspirations; and Australian buddy comedy “Kath & Kim.”

Some, like “Slings & Arrows” and “Kath & Kim,” were foreign acquisitions. Others, like “TransGeneration,” were conceived internally before an outside company (in this case, World of Wonder) was brought in to produce.

Because Sundance Channel isn’t ad-supported, it’s hard to quantify exactly how many new viewers have come to the cabler thanks to the new shows. However, internal research shows awareness and viewership among subscribers is up significantly in the last year, as is the number of unique visitors to the channel’s Web site.

So why did Sundance, like so many specialty cable channels before it, have to move away from its original mission to build its audience?

“It’s been proven all across America that it’s all about original programming,” says Michalchyshyn. “That’s how the HBOs and Discoverys made their place in the world, through original programming.”

“When Sundance started, you couldn’t use Netflix or download movies or use other methods that are available for getting your hands on (independent films),” says Chicago Tribune media columnist Phil Rosenthal.

“So what is going to make something distinguishable from that?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s going to be the original programming. Beyond the brand name, a channel remains vital to the consumer through providing something you can’t get anywhere else.”

Working with a team that includes newly hired senior VP of original programming and development Lynne Kirby, Aidem, Michalchyshyn and Sundance will introduce a host of new series in the coming year, most in the “docu-soap” format of “The Staircase” and “TransGeneration.”

Titles in the hopper include:

  • “City of Men,” a half-scripted, half-documentary Brazilian hit set in the same slums (and produced by the same people) as Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God”;

  • “Nimrods,” an eight-part series, directed by Brett Morgan of “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” following a community in Michigan during a high school basketball season;

  • “The Hill,” director Ivy Meeropol’s six-parter about three staffers who work for Florida Congressman Robert Wexler; and

  • “House of Boateng,” a character-centered series, produced by Reveille about Oswald Boateng, a Saville Row designer from Ghana struggling to launch his business in America. “It’s a new spin on the American dream and told in a more documentary format than you’ve seen from Reveille before,” says Kirby.

The push to create their own content included arguably the channel’s most valuable asset: its association with the Sundance Institute and the Sundance Film Festival.

In years past, the channel would only cover the festival’s awards ceremony or devote a few days of coverage. This year will feature a half-hour magazine series called “Festival Dailies” that will report from the ground every night of the festival.

“To be honest, it’s covered quite extensively,” admits Kirby, “but what we have is our relationship, we get insider access, we attend the filmmakers lunch, we speak to (Robert) Redford.”

For now, the plan is to acquire any future scripted series while focusing the production money on original docu series and one-offs. 

“There’s not really a need to go into scripted yet,” says Kirby, who then laughs and says, “Every channel starts out that way, and five years later, they’re doing scripted.”

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