Sundance Channel Goes Ad-Supported

Next AMC?

After five years of generating revenue through limited sponsorships, Sundance Channel on Sept. 30 will transform itself into a fully ad-supported network. The move comes as the AMC Networks property promotes its upcoming scripted drama series Rectify (April 22) and the recently green-lit The Descendants. To that end, AMCN is marketing and airing Rectify across networks. Following its premiere on Sundance, Ray McKinnon’s psychological drama will encore on AMC on April 28, leading out of Mad Men.

AMCN COO Ed Carroll said he believes Sundance needs to have a bigger presence in the basic cable ecosystem. “We’ve succeeded in growing its footprint…and we’ve been ramping up the investment in originals,” Carroll said.

Both of those points bear fleshing out. While AMCN has a new deal in place with satellite provider Dish, Sundance is still only in about 50.2 million households. (By way of comparison, per the company’s most recent earnings filing, flagship AMC reaches 98.9 million subs.) In order to move the needle, AMCN CEO Josh Sapan has vowed to pump more cash into Sundance. “Pointedly, we think that it’s sort of undernourished and really is both in need of [money] and rich with opportunity,” Sapan said on the company’s most recent earnings call, adding that AMC is a “pretty good example” of a network that has paid off on its programming investment.

Sapan last year argued that AMC’s carriage fee should be inflated to 75 cents a sub per month, up from a quarter, so it’s likely that a Sundance hit would be used to justify raising the smaller network’s affiliate rate. If nothing else, originals like the new miniseries Top of the Lake offer more to MSOs than the umpteenth screening of The Piano.

Sundance president Sarah Barnett said AMCN’s increased investment in her network is palpable, adding that the staff is sprinting to meet its end of the bargain. “We’re running our team ragged right now,” Barnett said. “It’s a very energetic time for us; we’re also still continuing to do some unscripted shows like Push Girls and The Writers’ Room.”

New blood has kept the Sundance heart pumping hard. Programming head Nena Rodrigue came aboard earlier this month, while producer Jordan Helman on March 11 was named director of scripted development/current.

Guaranteeing Nielsen deliveries shouldn’t present a total shock to the Sundance system. After all, AMCN president of national advertising sales Arlene Manos has been selling sponsorships to the likes of Frito-Lay, Lexus and Samsung since 2008.

Jon Dobbin, svp director of client services for KSL Media, said he’s interested in the network’s audience of 25-54 year olds, many of whom have a high median income.

“Sundance Channel’s transition to an ad-supported model gives them all greater opportunity to market to this audience,” he said.

Will viewers miss uncut movies, though? Carroll thinks not. “With the rise of streaming video on demand (i.e. Netflix), people who are seeking uninterrupted movies can find them,” he said.