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Upfronts 2014: Three Lessons TV Can Learn From Cable Pitches

Analysis: LIve events, real-time marketing and docu-series all present new challenges to a business that needs a new formula to retain viewers

If the recent parade of cable “upfront” presentations is any indication, TV is in for a lot of drama in the next several months, and not always one that comes in hour-long chunks.

The set-top box will of course continue to dispense that, so fans of “The Walking Dead” and “The Americans” can rest easy. But there’s another sort of emotional story on display and it has to do with the future of TV programming as devised by some of the nimbler players on the field.

While the big broadcasters must come up with entertainment that draws the broadest possible audience, cable is able to experiment and play to the niches. “Adult Swim” can try things out with its audience, for example, that CBS simply cannot. Many of those trial balloons have wafted into the air over the last several weeks, in presentations made by everyone ranging from MTV to El Rey Network. Below, a few of the developments worth keeping an eye on as the TV business continues to lurch forward in an era of rapid change caused by an array of disruptive new technology:

*Live events are as dangerous as they are alluring: When Discovery Channel highlighted the live special “Everest Jump Live” at its upfront presentation in April, it made all the sense in the world. Here was a network trying to extend its reach from so-called “non fiction” programming to what is more or less “stunt-casting,” and had the cred to prove it. Last year’s Nik Wallenda tightrope walk, broadcast on Discovery, was one of the most interesting ideas of the season.

The trouble with making one of these events one of the tent poles of a programming lineup? There is a tendency for things to go awry. Just ask ABC, which in the 1970s declined to air live broadcasts of Evel Knievel making ill-fated jumps at both Caesar’s Palace or Snake River Canyon on, respectively, a motorcycle and a rocket-powered “Skycyle.” The daredevil broke multiple bones during each attempt and putting it on TV might have seemed exploitative.

Discovery found out the troublesome details of the live-stunt format just a few weeks ago, when a deadly avalanche at Everest resulted in multiple deaths and left tough conditions for climber Joby Ogwyn, who was set to take off from the mountain’s summit in a wing suit. Discovery planned hours of ancillary programming around the stunt, which was to have taken place May 11 – a day before the big broadcast networks start to make their “upfront” pitches to Madison Avenue.

Despite the setback, the network remains undaunted. It’s got a fall spectacle planned featuring Wallenda crossing the Chicago skyline untethered. Better hope for sunny weather.

*TV networks want to be the next Twitter: One of the more ambitious efforts surfacing during the cable presentations this year comes from MTV, which is offering its sponsors the chance to speak to its viewers almost in real-time.

Every day, MTV recently promised, a newly-created staff of artists, animators and other creatives will determine the trending topics of the moment and quickly craft short-burst videos nodding to them that can run during commercial breaks. Imagine the possible connection if Procter & Gamble could attach a message about skincare to teens watching a cute ten-second call-out to a celebrity whose film is all the talk of social-media.

It’s the sort of thing advertisers try to do on Twitter, by pumping out quick tweets about whatever is hip or happening in popular culture, whether it is last night’s Jimmy Fallon monologue or the Super Bowl. Time Warner’s Turner is attempting to do some of this stuff as well, and so is Weather Channel, which during its upfront offered advertisers the chance to use data about local conditions to place appropriate commercials in front of viewers in specific geographic regions (eliminating, perhaps, the gaffe of hurling a an ad about barbecuing outside to a viewer who can only see rain).

Executives at Twitter, Instagram and the rest ought to shiver upon hearing such stuff. They have been pitching themselves as places where advertisers can harness the conversation about TV’s biggest programs without having to pay the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs to place commercials alongside those shows. Now TV is fighting back, offering a similar opportunity that can co-exist with the usual big-bang advertising stuff it likes to sell.

*TV networks big and small are dusting off the documentary and making it the hot format of the season: What image comes to mind when you think about Viacom’s CMT? Videos from Miranda Lambert and Keith Urban? Reruns of “Reba” and “The Dukes of Hazard”? Well, how about a documentary on the plight of the American farmer from Ridley Scott? Or an eight-hour series on the rise of so-called “outlaw” country music in the 1960s and 1970s?

News outlets like CNN and Al Jazeera America aren’t the only cable outlets ramping up production of documentary programming. CMT intends to run 20 hours of the stuff over the coming season. Pivot, the cable network aimed squarely at millenials, will launch what President Evan Shapiro called a “docu-comedy.” The show, “Human Resources,” chronicles life at a start-up company led by an offbeat entrepreneur where the mission is to turn junk and trash into useful items.

We’ve long known that reality programming is cheaper to produce than scripted fare. But these projects tamp down the titillation factor that has become so prevalent in unscripted programming in favor of shining a light on places, people and subjects that might not normally get much play on TV. With traditional long-form print journalism on the outs thanks to seismic shifts in consumer behavior and the ways in which advertisers try to court them, this sort of stuff seems welcome, even if it isn’t likely to match the ratings power of NFL football or the zombies on “Walking Dead.”

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