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Get serious: networks are creating programming that more closely reflects the interests of narrowcast audiences By Jeremy Schlossber

Television is a medium, Fred Allen once said, because it is never rare or well d

We’re not talking Masterpiece Theatre marathons on E!, but we are seeing an increasing number of cable programmers who actually dare not underestimate the intelligence of their audiences. “Our research suggests people are willing to watch television in ways they were less likely to in the ’80s,” says Merrill Brown, senior vp/corporate and program development for Court TV. The short attention spans of the Reagan-Bush years, he contends, are being replaced with a new seriousness of viewing purpose. “People in the ’90s will be willing to devote themselves to watching important television,” Brown says.
Television–in many small but significant ways–is getting serious. History TV as a cable concept would have been laughed away five years ago. Today it sounds like a perfectly logical and interesting entertainment option. MTV as a news force in a presidential election was unimaginable in 1988. We all know what happened last year.
To date, most signs of creeping seriousness have been either ignored or misinterpreted. Take the way MTV’s news efforts were tiresomely overanalyzed in the context of the traditional news media. Even MTV’s own programmers stand ready to deny the notion that a station forever flaunting its prepackaged version of irreverence is turning earnest and thoughtful. “Are we getting overly serious? God forbid,” says Sara Levinson, executive vp of MTV Networks. “We always try to entertain our audience. When we stop entertaining them, they’ve got that remote control.”
What Levinson will allow is that MTV has long fostered a “dialogue” with its audience that continually reinforces the sense that MTV is “their place on the dial.” With a strong viewer/network relationship established, she says, “we feel we can take a little liberty, maybe introduce them to thoughts that might make a difference in a positive way. But we’re not becoming The McNeilLehrer Report.”
One doubts they have been so accused, but we should not let MTV dance too quickly away from the “serious” tag. We should instead applaud the network for being among the entertainment industry’s first prominent purveyors to realize that you can be serious without being somber, that cable is one of the most logical places in the entertainment universe to do this, and that a significant portion of the American viewing public is eager for this to be done.
Why serious, why cable, why now? The answer begins with recognition of the obvious problem facing all cable programmers in the early ’90s: how to make yourself heard among the noisy clamor of the 50-plus-channel cable box. “Getting the viewer’s attention in a multichannel environment is everyone’s challenge,” says David Kenin, executive vp/programming for USA Networks. From a programming point of view, getting the viewer’s attention might mean one of two things: Give everyone more of what they already love, or offer something no one else can offer.
Cable has been no stranger to the first option. Broadcast reruns still fill the schedules of many a cable network, and quite successfully in many cases. But because reruns are generally available to everyone–and, for economic reasons, are usually the first source of bulk programming for fledgling enterprises–there is little opportunity to distinguish yourself as a noteworthy resting place for the avid channel surfer through reruns alone. Brand identity on cable is difficult to build through broadcast TV reruns. (Then again, proving there are no set rules, Nickelodeon’s “Nick at Night” programming has shown it’s not impossible.)
Brand identity has been a bugaboo for cable networks for years. “It’s very hard,” says Kenin, to create a solid “character” for most networks especially when, like USA, there is little or no need for a live presence. One of the surest ways for broadcast channels-and cable networks like MTV, CNN and ESPN–to create identities with viewers is with teams of announcers, reporters and hosts for coverage of news and sporting events, rather than with specific programming. Viewers identify with real people, talking directly to them. By contrast, the logo-in-the-corner method of many cable networks is a pale substitute. “People use USA,” says one programming competitor, “but they don’t have a sense of USA.”
Most programmers believe brand identity is one of the surest ways to obtain and maintain viewer attention in the multichannel environment, and they contend it will become more important soon. “When you get into a world of 500 channels, there has to be a reason why you’re a first-choice destination,” says Herb Scannell, senior vp/programming for Nickelodeon.
Brand identity is the key to this. Once a viewer is familiar with a channel as a brand name, he’ll seek it out among however many choices, tune it in and stay a while. And the key to brand identity on cable, says Scannell, is original programning.
Others readily agree. “One of our biggest priorities is continuing our focus on original programming,” says Miteh Semel, senior vp/programming for Comedy Central, which has largely phased out acquired sitcoms.
Asserts Greg Moyer, executive vp/programming for Discovery Communications, parent of The Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel, “Without committing to original television, you’re not really preserving your future.” Like many other cable channels, The Discovery Channel was “forced into an acquisition mode to get on the air” in 1985, he says. Now, however, the channel features 50% original programming. “It’s our lifeblood,” says Moyer. “Anytime you’re leasing your product, you are vulnerable to losing your niche.”.
Of course, there are original ways to package non-original programming, which is a particular specialty of The Sei-Fi Channel, USA’s growing venture. “Festivalizing” is a favorite term of USA’s Kenin to describe how Sci-Fi creates events out of previously aired programs. The channel prides itself on finding hard-to-find shows because its target audience is especially oriented toward such stuff.
Other networks don’t have such options. For The Discovery Channel, original programming means originally commissioned documentaries. ‘We’re giving work to independent documentary producers that haven’t been able to put work on the air since the 1960s,” says Moyer.
The channel seeks to re-establish a place for genuine, thoughtful programs in a manner that traditional networks have long abandoned. “If we’ve proven one thing in the seven-and-a-half years we’ve been on the air,” adds Moyers, “it’s that there’s an insatiable, continual appetite for non-fiction entertainment.”
For Comedy Central, original programming means expanding the idea of television comedy beyond the sitcom/talk show/ variety show straitjacket. An area for which Semel holds high hopes is what he calls “comedy news and commentary,” as pioneered by Comedy Central’s “inDecision ’92” election coverage. The network has regularly scheduled news programming set for a summer debut, and a comedie version of a political talk show called Politically Incorrect on tap for the fall.
At Nickelodeon, the original programming push is keyed above all to series production, says Scannell. “We have made series programming a major priority,” he explains. That sets Nickelodeon apart, from other basic or pay-cable rivals. To date, original cable programming has concentrated on either one-shots–such as movies or comedy specials–or, more recently, on talk and interview shows.
One of the things people like most about TV, says Scannell, is being able to visit the same group of characters week after week. Nickelodeon’s commitment to creating that kind of programming “has given us the strength to go into places where you wouldn’t have thought we could do well,” he says, referring especially to the success of “Snick,” the channel’s Saturday night lineup of original series programming.
So original programming creates brand identity, which creates a franchise-like presence on a crowded dial, which is ever more important in anticipation of both real and imagined new competitors for viewers’ precious time. Because the original programming push is relatively new, the outcome of that push is even newer and is largely unexamined. Says A&E senior vp/programming and production Brooke Bailey Johnson, “We’re so into it that it’s hard to step back and look at it on a macro basis.”
Original programming on cable appears to be created most successfully when a network is in tune with its specific audience. These audiences tend to be more targeted and well-defined than the mass audiences the broadcast networks still seek.
Now comes the unexpected twist. Once a cable net-work is fully in tune with its specific audience, it becomes easy, if not outright logical, to provide programming that at once satisfies viewers yet rises above the lowest-common-denominator fare so long and so often associated with television. When a network completely understands its specific audience, it’s far easier to assume the viewers are not all living room vegetation. Cable programmers do not necessarily have to stoop to conquer.
A&E, of course, was there all along. “In our specific niche, serving the upscale, better-educated, more selective market, original programming has always been a must,” says Johnson. This market was made to absorb programming that displayed “a real commitment to the performing arts” and to quality entertainment of all types. “I’d like to think people like us have had a positive impact on television overall,” she says. A&E’s just-announced H-TV venture, for example, would be all but unthinkable without clear indications that the viewing public, in the words of Court TV’s Brown, “will invest time in serious, long-form television.”
Brown’s network provides a good and perhaps more surprising example. When announced as a concept, there was anticipatory criticism in some comers, based on the assumption that turning private court battles into daily TV programming would sensationalize and oversimplify the complex conflicts of ordinary people. Such an assumption, in retrospect, was based on the broadcast TV model of programming–a thoroughly irrelevant model in the narrowcasting world of cable. Instead, Court TV consistently presents sober, in-depth analysis of the cases it covers.
It is likely to take a few years for everyone from advertisers to viewers to programmers to get used to a different programming model. Plus, it’s easy to be blinded by programming examples that seem to show television growing ever mashier. But Brown says not to be fooled by a false omnipresence of things like tabloid talk shows. Consider the total programming time devoted to such fare verus, say, the 24-hours-a-dav, 7-days-a-week presence of A&E, Court TV, and even Comedy Central.
Serious comedy? Well, not quite. But, again, the opportunity to seek a specific audience and the desire to produce standout original programming has more often than not led to creative efforts far beyond the laugh-track sensibility of traditional TV comedy. Seriousness may not be quite the right word here. Sincerity is better. One thing lowest-common-denominator programming can rarely be is sincere.
In the world of thoughtful narrowcasting, TV networks also have to level with viewers by acknowledging there are other viewing options. This can even lead to new programming. E!, for instance, mines broadcast talk shows to create an unexpectedly entertaining little daily show called Talk Soup.
Expect more, not less, of this stuff. If cable TV programmers can turn Sally Jesse Raphael and Geraldo clips into an intelligent show, if they can turn a network based on mindless music videos into a media outlet specifically targeted by the president of the United States, who knows what blatantly perspicacious efforts lie ahead. Forward-thinking programmers are excited about the potential for serious and seriously entertaining television. “Look at History TV or Ovation,” says Court TV’s Brown. “These I think are wonderful signs of what we have to look forward to in the ’90s.”
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