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Showstoppers: Big Programming Ideas That Came Alive in ’05

12/30/2005 7:11 PM Eastern

These days, it’s no mean feat to stop viewers from switching channels or from turning their attention from one media screen to another. Nor is it easy to stop seasoned programming mavens in their tracks with competitive moves that could change the prospects for their own bottom lines. But the year that just ended contained a number of programming events that bear particular attention. Multichannel News editors recap five really big pieces of business, and 19 other toppers.

I Want My (Multimedia) TV

MTV Networks went into overdrive during the last year, creating targeted video content through relatively new platforms, not the least of which were five broadband video “channels.”

“Our goal is to live at the cross section of entertainment and communications, where we can continue delivering the most unique experiences to all of our audiences,” said Jason Hirschorn, who spearheads the network group’s charge into the digital world as chief digital officer.

The programmer’s new broadband services include MTV’s Overdrive, VH1’s VSpot, Comedy Central’s Motherload, MTVU’s Über and Nickelodeon’s TurboNick. But they take up just one part of MTV’s digital driveway.

The network group also acquired several youth-targeted sites in 2005, including IFILM (www.ifilm.com), a collection of short-form Hollywood and amateur video; and NeoPets.com, in which kids name and nurture virtual pets.

MTVN also continued to grow its mobile-phone business last year, providing exclusive content on network-branded channels to Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel Corp. and Amp Mobile users.

Not to be outdone, Nickelodeon made full episodes of some programs available for downloading to Hasbro’s new Vugo portable multimedia system. And last month MTV Networks partnered with Microsoft to create Urge, a subscription music service set to bow in 2006. Urge will allow consumers to download more than 2 million songs from Microsoft’s new Windows Media Player. — R. Thomas Umstead

The Multi-Tasking Mini

The concept could have been about as compelling as castor-oil casserole: mixing a socially motivated agenda with bottom-line sensibility. But Lifetime Television cooked up a winner with Human Trafficking, its first miniseries.

The two-parter, starring Mira Sorvino and Donald Sutherland (both of whom have been nominated for Golden Globe awards) took on the issue of the international trade in women and children as sexual slaves.

"The issue was underreported, and we knew we could make a big impact," said Meredith Wagner, executive vice president of public affairs, who has led the network’s socially motivated agenda in recent years.

The miniseries garnered the highest viewership of a Lifetime original last year, attracting an average 5.5 million viewers on Oct. 24 and 25, according to Trevor Walton, senior vice president of original movies for the network.

But ratings are just one way the network measures its results. Lifetime and those who battle human trafficking have used the film, and an accompanying educational guide, to raise awareness and lobby Congress to pass a variety of bills that will tackle the problem on several fronts. — Linda Haugsted

Speaking Their Language

In 2005, it became old school to target Hispanic viewers — particularly young ones — with strictly Spanish-language TV programming. Now, a handful of Latino-targeted networks are either doing their shows in English, or in a bilingual combination of English and Spanish, heavily weighted to the former.

English-language Sí TV — slogan “Speak English, Live Latin” — helped pave the way. Jeff Valdez, the network’s cofounder and chairman, is of Hispanic descent, but concedes his Spanish isn’t that great. Out of his own experience and observations, Valdez said that “contrary to popular belief,” all Latinos aren’t heavy consumers of Spanish-language TV. Even Hispanics who speak Spanish at home don’t necessarily consume all of their media in that language.

At least four other youth-aimed Latino networks move back and forth from English to Spanish, as U.S. Hispanics might: MTV Español, Mun2, LATV and the fledgling Voy channel.

“There’s no formula,” said Antoinette Zel, senior vice president of network strategy for Telemundo, parent of Mun2. “We really are trying to debunk the theory that language is an effective way to identify this group.”

MTV Español will interview an artist in whatever language she or he feels comfortable with, according to the network’s general manager, Lucia Ballas-Traynor. Ad agencies are acknowledging that “the Hispanic market is just as complex as the general market, and that it’s not easily classified under the Spanish-language banner,” she said.

Sí TV is doesn’t just speak English — it also takes on Hispanic TV’s sacred cows.

When people ask if his network does novelas, Valdez answers, “No, we make fun of them.” — Linda Moss

Swimming with the Big Fish

Adult Swim spun off from its mothership, Cartoon Network, during 2005, but the germ of the channel idea actually happened about four years ago, when executives at Turner Broadcasting System Inc. realized the great potential of viewers 18-plus.

People in that wide, open-ended demo comprised about one-third of Cartoon Network’s audience base, according to executive vice president and general manager Jim Samples. So Cartoon began specifically targeting that group with a Sunday late-night block called Adult Swim, encoring on Thursdays.

It included a faux animated interview show, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, and the adventures of a food-based group of elite crime solvers, Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

“Given our success as a late-night destination, we decided late in 2004 to expand to overnight to meet the Nielsen definition of a network,” said Samples.

It debuted on March 29, 2005, as a separate service programmed from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. And in its first 36 weeks, Adult Swim ranked first in cable among adults and males 18 to 24. It was also tops among adults and males 18 to 34 in 32 of those weeks.

Samples expects Adult Swim senior vice president Mike Lazzo and team to match this year’s new series output. “Five or six — that feels right. Of course, we’re also likely to see four, five or six new installments of existing shows, too. It’s a very fluid place.” — Mike Reynolds

The Window Smashers

If some enterprising research company tracked the decibel level of outraged remarks in the press about news pertaining to the media, it’s clear that the strong reaction to the practice of debuting theatrical films on TV on the same day they premiere in movie houses would be at the top of the list.

Some theater owners say it would destroy their business.

But as of this coming April, Rainbow Media Holdings plans to release two movies per month simultaneously in its IFC Center in New York the same day the films premiere on demand.

Meanwhile, 2929 Entertainment LP — owner of the production company HDNet Films, the Landmark Theatres chain and the HDNet and HDNet Movies channel duo — tested the day-and-date waters last year, and will increase the number of simultaneous releases in 2006 to a dozen.

Mark Cuban, co-owner of 2929 and cofounder, chairman and president of HDNet, brushes aside the theater-owner complaints. “Every major media and all but one theater company is a public company,” he wrote in a recent e-mail exchange. “None wants to add any risk to their stock price.” — Janet Stilson

September