TV NotebookOriginal programming emerging in basic cable networks
By David Kronke Los Angeles Daily News
Go to the supermarket and throw a can of Campbell's tomato soup or a Sara Lee pound cake into your basket, and you pretty much know what you're getting.
Basic cable networks like USA, with its "Characters Welcome" slogan, or TNT, where "We Know Drama" is the mantra are hoping for the same familiarity and loyalty from viewers.
Once cable channels were a hodgepodge of programming (some still are), but now a number of the major basic cable networks are increasing the amount of their original scripted shows and focusing on developing a tonal consistency that helps brand them.
So, even though series come from different creators and have widely disparate themes, they almost look as though they could have been crafted in a cloning laboratory, meaning viewers have a better chance of enjoying all of their offerings.
"I'm big on brands," says Bonnie Hammer, president of both USA Network and the Sci Fi Channel. "It's very important for anyone to differentiate themselves and come up with a brand that's organic to what they do. Especially now, with all this cross-platform product that has to be developed (online), if in fact there is no brand, there's no way to carry it over."
Steve Koonin, executive vice president of TNT, adds, "With most cable networks, it's the pursuit of the hit rather than the pursuit of the network; we're just trying to build the network stronger and stronger. To have a brand, you have to have that thread of consistency. We're very conscious of that."
Few networks manage to maintain a consistent sensibility in their scripted programming: In the beginning, before it imploded, The WB managed it with slick shows aimed at young audiences. Cable has learned from that model.
TNT's focus is apparent in its motto: "We Know Drama." Its series "The Closer," starring Emmy nominee Kyra Sedgwick, is the highest-rated original program on basic cable. Its miniseries productions, such as the current "Nightmares & Dreamscapes," are touted as summer events. "Into the West," its previous miniseries, recently led all programs with 16 Emmy nominations.
USA, on the other hand, lures viewers with its tag line, "Characters Welcome." Its Friday lineup of the quirky crime dramedies "Monk" (which has won star Tony Shalhoub two Emmys) and "Psych" is a huge draw, and on Sundays it presents the distinctive paranormal dramas "The 4400" and "The Dead Zone." The Sci Fi Channel's focus is fairly self-explanatory.
ABC Family is aimed at teens and their parents: "Kyle XY," about a curious teenager of mysterious origins, this summer won the network its best ratings. Next week, it will introduce a lighthearted drama, "Three Moons Over Milford," about a small town coping with the potential end of the world.
By contrast, FX targets mature viewers with such stylishly gritty series as the corrupt-cop action show "The Shield" (star Michael Chiklis has won an Emmy), the corrosively sardonic firefighter series "Rescue Me" (Denis Leary, its star and co-creator, recently received his second Emmy nomination) and "Nip/Tuck," a show about Miami plastic surgeons offering mediations on self-images and what constitutes beauty.
"One of the things I'm proud of is that ëNip/Tuck' and ëShield' are about as different from one another as possible, and yet they share a similar sensibility," says Jon Landgraf, president of FX entertainment. "That sensibility is a trueness to the vision of the creators.
"We live in a culture that is about manufactured product, of product that is focus-grouped and designed to be user-
friendly, whether it's a hamburger or a car," Landgraf continues. "But the stuff that tends to mean the most to people are things that are made by hand, that are made by someone with a point of view and a distinctive sensibility, and then they happen to resonate with a lot of people." We want to make shows that are as popular as possible, but for me, when you try to reverse-engineer, which is mostly what TV and movies do anymore, you end up with middling work."
By contrast, TNT ensures that its original productions are tooled specifically for its audiences.
Michael Wright, senior vice president of original programming for TNT, says, "Our approach is very specific. We meet with writers and show-creators and spend the bulk of our time explaining to them what the network is, who's watching and why we think they're watching. So they're crafting a show to a very specific audience. ... If you give talented people that very specific sense of who's watching you, they're expert at hitting the target.
"It's a very populist network," he continues. "These are shows that are very relatable, very accessible. They're very commercial shows, but they're also smart. We're not trying to be elitist, but by no means is the network trying to aim at the lowest common denominator."
ABC Family's mission is inherent in its name, says network president Paul Lee. "We can do family drama, but in a relevant way," he says. "We can deal with real issues. So, as you see us rolling out a number of shows, you see a tremendous amount of faith for us in family drama. What you see us doing is saying, ëLook, let's take something else. Let's take a cop show. Let's take a sci-fi show. Maybe, let's take a mythology show and we'll meld that together with family drama.' " We think that's the right thing to do for our audience."
While Hammer oversees two very different networks, what unites USA and Sci Fi is their branding approach, which she concedes is a tricky thing to pull off.
"Even Sci Fi is complicated," she says. "If you create a brand that's just the old definition of pure science fiction of space operas it's very narrow. You'll have a very loyal fan base, but it's very difficult to grow. So you have to figure out a way to broaden it enough in terms of speculative fiction, so that you can grow your audience."
Figuring out USA's character-based identity, Hammer says, "was trickier. We had to do a lot of soul-
searching in terms of what can we do that will differentiate ourselves from any other general entertainment channel. We realized that everything we do is based in character development.
"So we had to figure out what does USA mean? To some, it can mean a place. But the way we went was, USA is about the people who live in America."
That revelation opened the door to USA's current success.
"We're so clear about what our brand is now," Hammer says. "A few years ago, it was a little harder: What do you mean, characters? We do have to have strong, definable, differentiated characters. We absolutely have to see them as opposed to massive ensembles, where you can't define each character. Our protagonists are all slightly flawed in some way, but not negatively, not dysfunctionally."
Cable networks are also challenged by their more limited budgets when it comes to developing scripted series. Many cable networks must air one scripted series for every two pilots it develops. By contrast, broadcast networks may have a development batting average of one in five, or even worse.
"We have to be incredibly keen in terms of what we develop," Hammer admits. "So we're very careful as to what we greenlight, and of those scripts, how they're cast, how we execute. Cablers have become very smart as to how they make their decisions, knowing they have to be the right decisions."
But given the successes of these cable networks many of them are winning higher ratings this summer than their broadcast counterparts the industry might learn a thing or two from cable's lean, mean development system.
"All the broadcast networks have to take a look at the cable industry," Hammer says. "It's all changing. We all have to take a new look as to how we do business and at what works in our varying playing fields."http://www.dailynews.com/portlet/art...rticle=4112164