Virtually every cable network touts its original programming as the Holy Grail for sampling, branding, promotion and repeat viewing. So why do so many programmers still fill their lineups with off-network fare?
"In a perfect world there would be all sorts of brilliant, original programming airing all of the time on cable," said TV Guide
senior editor J. Max Robins. "But the economic model for basic cable doesn't permit that."
Major cable programmers like Court TV, TBS Superstation, Sci Fi Channel and Turner Network Television couldn't agree more. They firmly believe that established, off-network programming is far cheaper and less risky than developing and marketing unproven original fare.
The right off-net series, they said, can draw viewers in key demos and serve as a strategic gateway for original shows.
"Cable networks also need to know who they are," said Robins. "That's the bottom line, because then you have an idea of what type of programming you can go after."
Other networks like E! Entertainment Television (Saturday Night Live), Bravo (The West Wing), Oxygen (Xena, Warrior Princess), and WE: Women's Entertainment (Felicity) have taken note, and are shelling out top dollar in the hopes of snagging the right show to capture the viewing fancy of their respective audiences.
COURT TV'S BLUE
Off-network programming has enhanced the ratings for Court TV's original fare, according to executive vice president of programming Art Bell.
— which cuffed an average Nielsen Media Research household rating of 0.7 in the first quarter during its 8 p.m. weeknight time slot — leads into Forensic Files
and The System, two shows about investigation.
has emerged as Court TV's highest-rated original, averaging a 0.9 household rating in the first quarter.
"Two or three years ago, our original programming was doing 25 percent of the ratings they are doing now," said Bell. "One reason it is doing better is because we have attracted an audience by bringing in off-nets that have a built-in audience."
Court TV sees off-net programming as a method to attract an audience that would not otherwise be drawn to a newer network.
"And if the programming is in your genre and helps to nail your brand, then you've really hit a home run," said Bell.
To ensure viewers would connect with its acquisition of NYPD Blue, Court TV launched the show with a marathon that included a taped cast party and a behind-the-scenes making of special called Internal Affairs: NYPD Blue.
ABC —Blue's first-run home — aired the special on its affiliate stations, scoring a marketing coup for Court TV, according to Bell.
"We adopt the show," he said. "It's not just a matter of smacking it on and it's a poor stepchild because it's not an original. It's one of the things we celebrate."
"We also look very carefully at ratings and demo deliveries, and what that's going to do for us, because the interesting thing about off-net that's slightly different from originals is they have a history," he explained. "You can take a look at the kind of audience they are attracting."
TBS GETS COMEDIC
This fall, TBS Superstation will carry the strongest off-network lineup in its history, having snared the cable-exclusive rights to Home Improvement, The Drew Carey Show, Seinfeld
and Friends. Those shows will comprise the bulk of the channel's daily comedy block, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., and serve as a lead-in to its movie-heavy primetime lineup.
"We're not banking on things that are marginal anymore," said TBS senior vice president of programming Bill Cox. "These are solid shows that deliver time and time again."
Cox said TBS learned a lesson from the disappointing ratings generated from Coach
— considered, at the time, to be a smart buy for the sports-friendly network.
"For us, Coach
was a dud," says Cox. "But at the time we bought it, the show was No. 3 on [ABC]."
Cox said TBS, which targets adults in the 18-to-49 and 25-to-54 demos, has benefited in primetime from the 7 p.m. lead-in of Friends. The show registered a 44 percent jump in both demographics during the first quarter, said Cox, when compared with Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
"If you can't spend the money on originals, spend it on tried and true material," said Cox. "Viewers have shown throughout history they love repeat viewings of things they enjoy."
The Superstation's morning lineup seems to support that claim. During the first quarter, TBS's 8 a.m. to noon lineup — made up of off-net series Family Matters, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, A Different World
and Little House on the Prairie— was No. 1 in delivering adults aged 18 to 34, 18 to 49 and 25 to 54.
"We don't really look at household ratings anymore," said Cox. "For us, it's the sellable demographic you're going after, which changes by daypart."
LIFETIME IS GOLDEN
Developing successful original programming is the single most expensive investment a cable network can make, according to Lifetime Television senior vice president of research Tim Brooks.
"For a cable network to develop original series that work, while living through the failures, it takes an enormous amount of money," he said.
For branding purposes, it's only essential to develop a handful of successful originals, said Brooks. Most cable nets — including Lifetime — opt to produce a limited number of original shows at very high expense, combining them with familiar off-net programming that melds with their audience.
To that end, even older shows like The Golden Girls
can translate into Nielsen gold. Golden Girls
averaged a 1.7 household rating from Feb. 25- Mar. 31 2002 in its 11 p.m. time slot, according to Nielsen Media Research data.
fits our brand," said Brooks. "Even though it's set in the 1980s, it's timeless in its look. On the comedy side, it fits where Lifetime is, whereas a lot of other comedies might not."
The mid-March launch of Mad About You
also appears to be sticking with Lifetime's comedy mold, averaging a respectable 1.0 household rating at midnight since its mid-March launch.
Two additional comedies, The Nanny
(November) and Caroline in the City
(September), will join the network's lineup this fall.
Brooks would not divulge ratings expectations for these shows. Lifetime never looks at the overall rating as a single indicator of success for any of its off-net purchases, he said.
"We look first at the demographic, then its past performance in syndication," he said. "It has to meet that test first of fitting the Lifetime brand as opposed to, 'Let's buy it because it has a high rating.' "
WE TAPS YOUTH
When Romance Classics officially became WE: Women's Entertainment last year, the cable net also began searching for a younger audience. It hopes to appeal to younger women via its acquisition of Felicity. The series, which ends its first run on The WB this year, retains a median viewing age of 30.1.
"To be perfectly honest, we weren't attracted to the show until we saw this research," said WE general manager Martin Von Ruden. "Women have stayed with this show religiously for four years."
Like Lifetime, off-net success for WE isn't about ratings, according to Von Ruden.
"It's more audience composition — early 20s — and what advertisers are looking for."
Von Ruden said WE paid in the low six-figure range for Felicity, as well as Two Guys and a Girl. "
We think we got a good buy on them. Luckily for us, it was post-Sept. 11 and there was a bit of a recession, so the timing was in our favor for both shows."
BRAVO WINGS IT
WE sister network Bravo has also jumped into the off-network acquisition market in a big way.
But with the high-profile purchase of NBC's
The West Wing
for a reported $1.2 million per episode — as well as Home Box Office's The Larry Sanders Show
for $225,000 per episode — Bravo may be stepping outside its film-and-arts brand.
will air at 10 p.m., starting this fall, while The West Wing
joins Bravo's roster in fall 2003.
"I'm not sure what their ratings expectations are for The West Wing, but there is a point where a buy can blow up on you," said a cable programmer who wished to remain anonymous. "I look at their strategy quite dubiously and I am concerned they will be able to make it work."
Senior vice president of programming Frances Berwick acknowledges that the shows are expensive investments, but believes both will become ratings-drivers and augment the network's key 25-to-54 demo. And both series will serve as a means to introduce more original programming, according to Berwick.
"The West Wing
happens to be a broad entertainment show that has a big following, but I think it's absolutely within the boundaries of what Bravo is about," Berwick said. "It speaks to smart, artistic entertainment and it will be the launch pad for many of our original shows."
Bravo will also bolster its lineup this summer via a pair of cancelled series. It will add NBC's Deadline
and Breaking News, the Turner Network Television original that was dropped before even one of its 13 episodes aired. The latter will debut with a double-run on July 17 at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Twelve episodes of Deadline, including seven that were not seen before, will begin airing the following Wednesday at 9 p.m.
SCI-FI GOES FOR BROKEN
In addition to purchasing full seasons of such shows as Roswell
and The X-Files, Sci Fi also trades in limited run, or "broken" series. The network recently paid in the low five-figure range per episode for Fox's canceled horror anthology series Night Visions.
"How can you put Night Visions
next to Malcolm in the Middle?" asked Sci Fi senior vice president of programming and development Thomas Vitale. "The audiences just don't synch up."
Sci Fi will air 10 already-seen episodes of Night Visions
once a week this summer during primetime. Three unseen episodes will congeal into a movie.
"Basically, it will be an acquired, original movie," Vitale said.
is another broken-series acquisition that has migrated to Sci Fi, after only three out of 13 episodes aired on ABC.
"It was a very cost-effective way to add another original series," said Vitale.
Sci Fi has also been pleased with the performance of full and half-season acquisitions of Brimstone, Space: Above and Beyond, Earth 2
"It's a way for sci-fi fans to see a short-lived favorite one more time," said Vitale.
SAVED BY 'THE SHIELD'
To be well-balanced and successful, a cable network needs a good stable of both off-net and original programming, according to FX vice president of programming Chuck Saftler.
"Acquired programming supports the brand, original programming establishes the brand," he said. "Hopefully, as a cable network, you're able to develop a signature series, much like we have with The Shield, to establish a voice."
opened to a 4.1 household rating, the best for any scripted drama in basic-cable history, and averaged a 3.2 for its first six premiere installments. But the general-entertainment network has not reaped similar ratings success from its off-net acquisitions.
From Feb. 25 to March 31, FX's Ally McBeal
averaged a 0.2 among adults 18 to 49, while The Practice
and The X-Files
each nabbed a 0.3 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer
a 0.8 within that demo, according to Nielsen.
Those performances are perhaps not what FX had in mind when it purchased The X-Files
for a reported $600,000 per episode in 1997, Buffy
for $650,000 per show in 1998, and Ally
and The Practice
for $650,000 and $825,000, respectively, in 1999.
"Acquiring stuff for big bucks is the fastest way to put yourself onto viewers' radar screens," said one industry analyst. "But the last thing you want is a back shelf of expensive series that don't perform, because you're stuck with them."
Saftler sees things differently.
"If you look at the roster of programming we have, the commonality between them is quality and adults 18 to 49," he said. "Those types of shows give you the validity to launch something like The Shield."
FX recently renewed the gritty cop drama for a second season.