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At TCA, Schedules Take a Back Seat to Brand-Building

Curation, curation, curation. That was the message coming out of the major networks last week as they pitched their wares to journos at the Television Critics Assn. summer press tour.

Networks are responding to the sea changes in viewing habits and the ever-increasing volume of original programming offered across the dial by focusing on bulletproof branding. In a crowded landscape where on-demand viewing is growing, networks are scrambling harder than ever to find new shows with built-in audience awareness.

That’s why HBO is reviving its off-kilter Lisa Kudrow comedy “The Comeback” in November. The series was a one-season wonder for the pay cabler back in 2005, but its renown has endured among comedy aficionados, making the limited-run revival a can’t-miss proposition no matter where the show winds up on the schedule.

The networks need self-starting shows that prod viewers to hunt them down by setting the DVR or searching VOD and streaming-platform listings. Recognizable titles, promotable stars and kooky concepts (“Dating Naked,” anyone?) are almost a prerequisite for getting on the air. MTV is going far out of its comfort zone in greenlighting the fantasy drama series “Shannara,” based on a well-known book series, which the cabler hopes will become its “Game of Thrones.”

Smaller niche cablers are focused on 24/7 branding, turning channels into a destination for a certain type of programming. There’s a reason that many of the shows on the likes of Nat Geo TV, TLC, Spike TV, Oxygen and Food Network seem to blur together. To survive, niche channels need to pick a target slice of the audience, know what they want, and deliver variations on the theme all day and night. The tight focus on distinct targets is why Discovery Communications has so many channels beyond its namesake flagship. It needs to aggregate the viewership of Animal Planet, Investigation Discovery, OWN, Destination America and American Heroes Channel to draw a real crowd.

“The magic word is ‘curation,’ ” says Henry Schleiff, the veteran cable programmer who oversees Discovery’s Investigation Discovery and other channels. “With the volume of cable and digital (programming) now, there’s no such thing as appointment television. It’s important to have real clarity in your brand.”

“Hillbilly Blood,” a new entry coming to Destination America, fits that cabler’s theme of examining exotic aspects of American culture — in this case, the lifestyles of hardy men of Appalachia. Investigation Discovery is all about women on the older end of the 25-54 demo, and they want a diet of murder, sexual intrigue and mystery. ID will serve that up with a nostalgic twist in “Heartbreakers,” a series of true-crime tales featuring 1980s and ’90s hunks such as Kevin Sorbo, Antonio Sabato Jr. and Rob Estes.

Schleiff’s hyper focus on branding extends to labeling key programming blocks with umbrella titles, such as ID’s “Deadly Devotion,” “Dark Temptations” and “Nightmare Next Door.” He credits the programming and branding push for the double-digit increase in ID’s total-day ratings during the past year. At every turn, the goal is to make it easier for viewers to navigate their way through 200-plus channels to a Discovery outlet’s doorstep.

“We change the name every hour or so, but we’re consistent. We know what our viewers like and we give it to them,” he says.

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