Sci Fi Channel decided on a risky plan when it launched Steven Spielberg Presents: Taken in December, 2002. The network’s programming department had a lot riding on the success of the miniseries. And they were willing to experiment with a new scheduling strategy to maximize attention from viewers, the press, advertisers and cable operators.
The plan: run the film over 10 nights, with two marathon airings on the weekends. If the untested ploy failed, it could have resulted in low primetime ratings numbers for several weeks and a loss of viewers, even among the network’s regular audience base. But the gamble paid off handsomely, with huge viewer turnouts over the consecutive nights and during the weekend marathon run. Sci Fi embraced the strategy and now uses it to roll out its original movies and minis, including its four-hour Battlestar Galactica movie and the recent run of the fantasy miniseries Earthsea.
“We call it a burst,” says Thomas Vitale, the network’s senior vice president of programming and original movies. “It’s great for ad sales and for viewership. Let’s say you’re a viewer who wants to see the Battlestar Galactica miniseries, and you’re not available on Monday night. Most viewers will catch it Monday at 9, but they can catch part one at 7 p.m. on Tuesday leading into part two at 9 p.m. The double pumping in late night and the next day has helped us immensely.”
Sci Fi isn’t the only satellite-delivered channel that has become shrewder about how they schedule films and minis. The trend parallels the movement by cable channels to run more long-form storytelling as the broadcast networks scale back in that arena.
Programmers admit that sprinkling their schedules with movies in between regular series can be a bit precarious — regardless of whether the films are original, event projects or acquired theatricals. But programmers are striking a greater balance in scheduling by taking advantage of thematic stunts, marathon runs and using new technologies to their best advantage.
Vitale says thematic movie runs have become an increasingly popular technique for Sci Fi, because it helps alleviate an avoidable and very obvious challenge — no one movie appeals to every audience. Thematic runs are particularly effective on the weekends when viewers are at a premium.
In fact, Saturday and Sunday daytime hours are the “prime time” to air movies with a running theme. “We might do a 'space day’ all day Saturday or 'creature day’ all day Sunday — or water creatures on one Sunday and bugs the Sunday after that — or movies linked by a certain actor or director,” says Vitale.
But, he adds, Thursday night movies are positioned as a “warm-up” for the weekends. It’s on Thursdays that Sci Fi schedules small-budget originals and “new to Sci Fi” acquisition movies.
“We want to put things on that will be promotional for our Friday-night original series and our Saturday-night original movies and Sunday, if we do a big event,” Vitale says. “So Thursday-night movies are really a promotional platform for the weekend.”
TNT has gotten a lot of mileage running marathon airings of its monthly Sunday-night original movies, with a given film repeated in back-to-back time periods on a given night.
The November run of The Wool Cap ranked 19th among the top 100 primetime movies on cable from Dec. 29, 2003, to Dec. 26, 2004, while The Librarian: Quest for the Spear in December topped the list for the same period, according to Turner Broadcasting Systems Inc.’s analysis of Nielsen Media Research ratings numbers.
Other networks are copying the marathon model. Black Entertainment Television and Oxygen, in their efforts to have an increased presence in the original-movie business, are considering marathon premieres to launch upcoming titles: BET’s Book of Love: The Real Reason Why Men Are Dogs in February and Oxygen’s Confessions of a Sociopathic Social Climber in March.
“We’ll run it and then run it again,” Oxygen programming chief Debby Beece says of Confessions. “People are so busy, they want TV to mold to their schedules; they don’t want to mold to the TV schedules. And I think when you’re sitting there and you’re zapping around, it’s just more convenient.”
Marathon runs can be effective for big-title acquired theatricals, even when it involves scheduling a movie in the same time period over the course of several nights. TNT and TBS have had great success using that strategy with acquired films like Oceans Eleven, O Brother Where Art Thou and The Lord of the Rings.
“Lord of the Rings — we played it Friday, Saturday and Sunday like a multiplex,” says Ken Schwab, senior vice president of programming and acquisitions for TNT and TBS. “We’ve had unbelievable success with that over the years [since] we started with The Matrix. It’s just been wildly successful when you have a broad title like that.”
Schwab explains that because of TNT and TBS’s extensive movie inventory, they’ve been able to create “almost a niche network” by clustering certain like-minded movies. “In December we had Tomb Raider, Lord of the Rings and The Mummy and the original The Librarian. By clustering compatible programming, everything helps everything — the rising tide lifts all the boats, as the saying goes. It’s compatible both thematically and demographically. And you can assume you’re going to create a bigger target for the people who like those types of programs.” Because those movies provided a contrast to all the holiday-themed programming that traditionally airs in December, the timing worked particularly well, he adds.
Premium channels try to work their scheduling very differently than the basic and niche networks, says Julie Nunnari, senior vice president of scheduling and communications at Showtime Networks Inc.
“We treat our originals a little differently than we do our theatricals,” she says, noting that original programming doesn’t have the same pre-sold awareness that theatricals have. Because of that, when an original movie is about to debut, “you have to apply a really good marketing effort and place it in a time slot where it will be very obvious … And it’s always primetime, and it’s generally the weekends, Saturday or Sunday. The 8 [p.m.] or 9 [p.m.] position has really been the best position, because that’s where you get your highest viewing levels on Sunday or Saturday.”
Showtime also has 10 multiplex channels to fill, and Showtime product will usually migrate there. Plus, Showtime has siblings The Movie Channel and Flix to consider.
“Show 2 and Showcase — which are plexes of Showtime — will have the repeats of our original programming,” Nunnari says. “Sometimes it’s in the same month, and sometimes it’s in a future month. Every product is a little bit different.”
Nunnari contends that the ever-changing cable environment, with more than 700 channels vying for viewer attention in a fully digital world, will require constant fluctuations in scheduling patterns.
The biggest new developments for premium channels are services that allow viewers to schedule their own programming: video on demand and digital video recording devices. Though executives at ad-supported networks have huge questions about the ad-skipping capabilities of DVRs, Showtime and Home Box Office executives view DVRs as adding value to their linear services.
“It’s supercharge for our product,” says David Baldwin, executive vice president of program planning for HBO and Cinemax and an admitted “big fan” of DVRs. “It’s like putting a big ol’ super-charger on a V8, because then you have the ability to take all of our multiplex channels and set your own list [of programs to watch], not only with HBO, but 2 and Signature and Zone and Family and Comedy and Cinemax, Action Max, More Max.”
THE DVR FACTOR
Essentially DVRs make it easier for the viewer to access the programming, he says. “And that’s the business, making sure that they don’t have to pull a muscle trying to get to our shows.”
By fall, Nielsen is expected to begin tracking DVR usage in households, so networks will have a better idea of the effectiveness of the technology. (However, measuring VOD ratings is still an ongoing conundrum.) Yet, even some of the broadcast networks see the benefits of on-demand and DVR services.
At the recent Television Critics Association press tour, CBS executive vice president of research and planning David Poltrack released a study by the network that shows how DVR usage has increased the amount of time viewers will watch television, adding significantly to overall viewership.
Poltrack also notes the huge growth in DVD sales, which generate several billion dollars from old shows every year. “[It] has gotten people to realize that there’s some untapped demand out there,” says Poltrack, noting that television movies are still the most ordered genre of programming on VOD.
“Essentially people do not want to have to program their televisions,” he says, “They don’t want to have to think about things. The idea that they can always have whatever they want [with VOD], as opposed to setting the VCR, or even worrying about running out of capacity on the DVR — people like the convenience of it. And I think that will continue to drive people to VOD.”
His view is clearly mirrored by executives at the Starz Entertainment Group LLC, which is using VOD to infuse new life into the company’s 14 movie channels. VOD is an important part of the company’s relaunch efforts this spring.
“We can afford to experiment on different channels with different kinds of stunts programming,” says Starz president and CEO Robert Clasen.
For example, earlier this month Starz! ran a James Bond marathon on-demand, featuring 13 Bond titles.
“That on-demand marathon then kicks in about two weeks later on the linear channel of Encore, not Starz!,” says Clasen, “so we have a chance to promote across our channels different stunts and activities.
“It’s an effort on our part to say we’re all about theatrical movies, and there are many things we can do around it,” adds Clasen. “We’re gearing up our Web site to have targeted video content, and we will be doing things to drive consumers back and forth between the liner channels, on demand and the Web site.” The three-pronged approach will create a broader experience for viewers that will go beyond just watching the theatricals themselves, he explains.
VOD is a definite boon for Here! TV, according to Eric Feldman, the channel’s vice president of programming and operations. The service for gays and lesbians launched in 2003 and is currently available as either a linear channel or as an on-demand channel. It will run up to two original movies per month in 2005.
“There’s only so much bandwidth,” Feldman says. “For the subscription channels, especially in the incubation of them, it’s a great way to introduce quality programming to an audience that is looking for it.
“Scheduling is really a lost art,” he says. “It’s really about focusing and making your service fresh. And VOD offers a unique challenge, and it puts the demand on the programmer to keep an eye on making their service robust.”