Los Angeles--Despite competitive and technological challenges, cable networks have to continue to produce quality, original content to remain successful in a crowded marketplace, according to several cable network executives speaking here on a panel Cable Show 2010.
The industry's slew of major original scripted and reality hit shows such as AMC's Mad Men and TNT's The Closer have allowed networks to better identify their brands and stand out against the multitude of competitors in the marketplace, according to Ed Carroll, chief operating officer of Rainbow Entertainment Services, who was part of the Tuesday afternoon session.
"What all these shows have in common is they make the networks distinctive and hard to replace," Carroll said. "You develop fans that are attached to the networks and the brands -- at the end of the day that's what we're all pursuing."
Bravo Media executive vice president and general manager Frances Berwick said the success of such reality shows as the Real Housewives franchise has allowed the service to change its brand image from one reliant on acquired and repurposed content to one known mostly for its original fare. "We've been able to do more [due to strong original programming] -- we've doubled our number of original hours in the past three years, but we can also move away from acquired and repurposed standpoint," she said.
History president and general manager Nancy Dubuc, who recently added oversight of Lifetime to her duties, noted that the more successful a network is at developing original programming, the more pressure it faces to keep rolling out new content that stays within the brand identity.
"It's that balance of keeping the pressure on the team but staying true to what distinguishes you as a brand, which is why viewers watch you," she said.
Executives warned that the advent of the Internet and other technologies that allow viewers to watch quality original cable programming fare free of charge or without commercials threatens the dual revenue financial model that supports original programming production.
Carroll said that authentication efforts to control who is watching content on the Web can also help maintain a show's value to advertisers by disabling fast-forwarding through commercials.
"We taught consumers that they can watch shows of the quality of a Mad Men or The Closer, but they don't have to watch the commercials -- and that's bad," he said. "If we move to where the digital asset is controlled by a centralized headend or by authenticated programming, we should be able to reclaim the commercial inventory, because without that, there won't be more Mad Men, The West Wing or Lost."
While the debate over "TV Everywhere" models continue, FX executive vice president of original programming Nick Grad said that in the end it's the content that attracts viewers to the various platforms. "You have to work on making the best show possible," he said.
Another area threatening the viability of original programming content is the lack of a syndication market to sell reruns from hit cable shows. Dubuc said that developing a viable syndication market on cable is imperative for the future of original cable programming, but cable networks have been reluctant to secure syndicated rights to off-cable shows for fear of brand confusion, according to Michael Wright, executive vice president and head of programming for TBS, TNT and TCM.
"There are legitimate concerns having to do with brand confusion - I wouldn't want to buy somebody else's hit show that's currently running and putting it on prime," Wright said. "I think part of it is I don't want to buy that other guy's show."