NAMIC Panel: Originality Counts

Multicultural-TV Execs Need Acquired Shows, But Crave Originals

By Laura Martinez

How important is producing original content when serving multicultural TV audiences?

Very important, according to a panel at the NAMIC conference Tuesday, composed of a diverse group representing television outlets targeting African-Americans, U.S. Hispanics, Latin Americans and South Asians."

BET developed a new brand strategy a couple of years ago, and original programming is crucial for us,” Loretha Jones, president of original programming at BET Networks, said, setting the tone for the discussion.

A programmer needs original fare to establish brand identity, panelists said.

“Scripted programming is very important because it gives you the opportunity to script the network’s personality,” Toni Judkins, EVP of original programming and production at TV One, said. “You get to work on what your legacy is going to be.”

But while original programming is overall seen as a positive thing, there are those who brought some realism to the discussion.

“The upside [of original programming] is that you get to craft your own brand. But on the downside, let’s remember that 90% of all original shows fail,” observed Michael Smith, general manager of Cooking Channel.

While original content is on everybody’s top list, acquisitions are also an important part, especially for young networks like the 45-day-old Aspire, which launched with a mix of independent original series and some acquired programs that for their creators is important to put out there.

“A series like Julia is an important series and it needs to be put on the air,” Paul Butler, Aspire’s general manager, said about the groundbreaking Diahann Carroll series about a professional and mom dealing with the challenges of single parenthood.

The conversation then moved to the balance between scripted and non-scripted series; an area in which panelists Suresh Bala Iyer, of Asia TV USA, and Joshua Mintz, EVP of scripted programming at Telemundo Studios, had a lot to share in terms of what tickles their audiences.

“Drama is what drives viewership; just like it happens in Hispanic television,” said Bala Iyer, whose business deals with both, production and distribution of content targeting South Asians. Asia TV produces 400 hours of content for one specialty, mostly dramas, which according to Bala Iyer represent almost 90% of their content.

Going back to the importance of original content, Telemundo’s Mintz said: “I think Telemundo’s most important decision ever was to become an original content producer.”

He added that “as everybody knows, telenovelas are the bread and butter of Spanish-language primetime television.”

Telemundo produces more than 700 hours a year of original dramas, according to the network, which reaps benefits not only from putting those programs on the air but from selling them afterwards to the international markets.

The panel took a lively turn towards the end when a member of the audience asked panelists to weigh in about scripted programming vs. reality programming, a subject which can become a comfortable topic for some of them.

“I always try to answer this question very cautiously,” Jones, of BET, said. “But I can tell you I have a sort of allergy to reality TV, and to the way people of color are portrayed in some of these shows,” she said to the roaring applause from the audience. “I think it’s an oxymoron to call them ‘reality’ because I’ve never met people like that in my ‘real life.’ “