A covert operative seeks retribution after she was ambushed and left for dead while on an undercover mission. The most likely suspects: Members of her own elite team.
An espionage-based scripted series with such a plot could air on any of the major broadcast networks, or on general-entertainment cable services such as USA Network or TNT. Instead, The Hunted is a highlight on the primetime lineup of premium channel Cinemax, which filled its 24-hour schedule until last year with theatrical films and documentaries.
Yet Cinemax and other niche programmers, including Sundance Channel, Bravo, OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, Hal lmark Channel and TV One, are betting on scripted series to help build their respective brands and expand their audiences. Such shows often bring high production costs and low success rates. But investing in fictional content is worth the risk, network executives said.
“When you do scripted, you certainly up the ante in terms of really having to put your money where your mouth is,” Sundance executive vice president and general manager Sarah Barnett said. “There are times where you have to believe in your material and believe in your creative … It is a risk, but that’s life, and I think that’s where the strongest shows come from.”
A successful scripted series can catapult a cable network into the ratings stratosphere, and there have been several examples where channels that once offered mostly reality or movie fare have redefined their brands through the success of a strong scripted series.
AMC — the erstwhile American Movie Classics — was known for airing films targeted to older audiences. That changed in 2007 with the launch of the critically acclaimed and multiple Emmy Awardwinning period advertising drama Mad Men.
More recently, zombie drama The Walking Dead, now in its third season, has set cable viewership records among 18-to-49-year-old adults.
BET once defined its brand with music videos and reality series, until sitcom The Game (which had aired on broadcaster The CW from 2006 to 2009) moved to the cable network in 2011. The series’ January premiere was the most-watched comedy series debut in cable history and allowed BET to expand its audience with other scripted fare, such as Let’s Stay Together and Reed Between the Lines.
AMC Networks-owned Sundance Channel, traditionally a purveyor of independent cinema, hopes to follow the lead of corporate sibling AMC in Spring 2013 with Rectify, an ensemble legal drama.
The network had dipped its toe in the scripted waters with the Emmy-winning miniseries Carlos and the December 2011 two-part drama series Appropriate Adult. It hopes Rectify will draw viewers who aren’t fans of indie movies.
“Given Sundance’s brand roots in narrative story telling, it feels like the promise of the brand is to move into more franchise-based scripted series,” Barnett said. “We felt like it would have been crazy not to move into the scripted realm.”
For niche networks offering acquired movies or low cost reality fare, producing scripted content can be an expensive proposition. Scripted shows typically cost anywhere from $1.5 million per episode to as much as $5 million for an episode of Mad Men, as Jon Feltheimer, CEO of series producer Lionsgate, revealed at October’s CTAM Summit.
Better defining a network’s brand among viewers and advertisers is well worth that price, though, TV One senior vice president of original programming Toni Judkins said. The seven-year-old African-American-targeted network this past September launched its first original series, The Rickey Smiley Show, starring comedian Smiley as a popular radio host and single father. It quickly became the most watched show in TV One history, currently averaging 566,000 viewers.
“When you have a network like ours that launched with acquisitions, there comes a time when you have to start defining your brand,” she said. “Reality programming is reactionary — it’s watching people’s lives, which can be entertaining, but when you’re talking about the legacy and longevity of the network, scripted allows you to defi ne what you want your network to stand for and your brand to be.”
For emerging networks like OWN, a successful scripted series can help draw more viewers to its other programming offerings. The Oprah Winfrey/ Discovery Communications co-owned network recently reached a development deal with prolific scripted series producer Tyler Perry to create two fictional series in 2013 to compliment the network’s reality content such as Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s and Winfrey’s interview series Oprah’s Next Chapter.
Perry has produced three successful comedy series for TBS: Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, Meet the Browns and For Richer or Poorer.
“With this step into scripted, we think that we are obviously going to attract an audience,” OWN co-president Erik Logan said. “We feel confi dent in Tyler’s ability to create shows that will cultivate and grow an audience. How that changes or aff ects the network, we don’t know, but we’re excited to find out how the scripted element works on our network.”
Indeed, network executives expressed some concern about whether audiences expecting to watch movies or reality fare will adapt to viewing scripted content. But TV One’s Judkins said it’s a riskprogrammers have to take to stay competitive.
“There’s always a risk of losing your audience, but we’ve heard from our audience that they want new and fresh programming,” she said. “There’s a shelf life for nostalgic programming, particularly [in primetime] when you have the latest and greatest reality shows on competing networks, so by default you’re sending a message that we’re not listening to your needs [without scripted fare].”
In an effort not to alienate its viewers, Hallmark Channels president and CEO Bill Abbott said the network’s first scripted series, Cedar Cove starring Andie MacDowell, will mirror the family-friendly dramatic format that has proven to be successful for its original movies. Cedar Cove, based on Debbie Macomber’s best-selling book series, will debut in 2013.
“Because of our brand and our success and heritage in the original movie business, we feel like we can develop a family-friendly series that isn’t in the reality genre,” Abbott said. “From a destination point of view, a successful scripted series will solidify our position as a top tier cable networks in terms of development of content that takes a back seat to no one.”
Given the success of the scripted-series genre, other niche-targeted networks will jump into the scripted waters in the near future, in Abbot’s view.
“The economies of the business are such that cable continues to be so successful year after year — we have success because we’re able to grow our ad sales revenue and our distribution revenue and invest that back onto the screen,” he said. “You’re seeing other networks embark on this because they’ve had so much success in other areas that they’re able to take some shots down field in the scriptedseries business and hope to be a little riskier, based off of your success, and try to grow the business.”
Niche networks are investing in pricey scripted series to build their brands and expand their audiences.