A handful of cable networks is spending tens of millions of
dollars this year on conquering the moon, whale hunting and deconstructing the Cold War,
as the search continues for new ways to stand out in an increasingly crowded field.
The resulting series include: Home Box Office's $65
million From Earth to the Moon, a 12-part series on the space program, which debuts
April 5 and which will run over six weeks on Sunday nights; Cable News Network's $20
million documentary, TheCold War, which begins in the fall; Turner Network
Television's purchase of first-run and off-syndication rights to science-fiction cult
favorite Babylon 5; and USA Network's $20 million Moby Dick miniseries,
which debuts in March.
'This is saying to us that the cable industry is now
in the big leagues. They are now spending money for big programming,' said Bill
Croasdale, president of the national broadcast division for ad agency Western
International Media. 'They're saying,'We are now investing in new and
original programming,' and I think that is the best message that they're sending
out to their viewers and to us.'
Why are cable networks suddenly spending all of this money?
'It's terribly expensive, but we feel that
it's absolutely necessary to move us to the next level, to move us to a broader
audience,' said Rod Perth, president of USA Networks Entertainment.
'It provides an awareness of USA to viewers that might
not otherwise be aware of the network and all of the other programs ... It's getting
increasingly difficult to differentiate yourself, and we think that by developing this
piece of literature, we have a tremendous opportunity,' Perth added.
The big-event shows also boost cable operators'
retention-and-acquisition efforts, the programmers said.
'It's been a great story for our cable
affiliates, who can say,'It's only available on cable. You have to have cable
to get the show,'' said Scot Safon, TNT's vice president of marketing.
And the networks are throwing unprecedented amounts of
marketing money at these event-type programs.
HBO is leading the way: Among its media buys are a
90-second spot on the closing ceremonies of the upcoming Winter Olympic Games, ads in
movie theaters, two-page spreads in major newspapers and 10-page inserts in People
and Entertainment Weekly. It is also planning a significant presence with its cable
affiliates and local media, including a 21-city tour of FromEarth to the Moon,
in which cable operators will co-host screenings and panel sessions.
The impact of this series is seen as so large that
Tele-Communications Inc. chairman and CEO John Malone and president and chief operating
officer Leo J. Hindery Jr. are expected to attend the March 19 screening in Denver.
'We want subscribers to know that they're getting
some of the highest-quality program with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood,'
said Eric Kessler, HBO's senior vice president of marketing.
The untraditional miniseries is actually a series of 12
one-hour films that tell the various stories of the Apollo space missions: Each segment
can stand alone. The high-profile roster of producers and directors boasts two-time Oscar
winner Tom Hanks, who brought the project to HBO, as executive producer and director of
one segment; and Ron Howard as one of three producers.
Moreover, HBO has planned a series of media events designed
to get free publicity outside of the television pages. These include the April 5 White
House screening before President Clinton, with Tom Hanks; and a screening of the show at
the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on March 20 for Apollo astronauts and
everyone else involved in the Apollo missions, which peaked with the moon landings.
What does HBO hope to gain from its huge investment?
'In one word, I would have to say attention,'
said Anne Thomopolous, HBO's vice president of original programming. 'I also
think that we'll be sending an important message to the creative community that HBO
is always pushing to do more creative and courageous original programming, and that this
is the network to come to with a passion project.'
HBO is spending the most money on a single project, but CNN
is devoting record airtime to TheCold War, a massive project conceived by
network founder and Time Warner Inc. vice chairman Ted Turner.
Produced by Turner Original Productions with Sir Jeremy
Issac's and narrated by Kenneth Branagh, TheCold War has been in the
making for four years at a cost approaching $20 million.
Advertising time will be limited to four companies
representing different categories; Ford Motor Co. has already signed on as the automaker.
The Cold War runs 24 hours -- 12 in 1998 and 12 in 1999
-- and it will air in two 12-week blocks, in the Sunday-night time slot set aside earlier
this year for documentaries under the 'CNN Perspectives' umbrella.
Years 1917 through 1972 will be covered from Sept. 6 to
Nov. 22. The series picks up again on Jan. 24, 1999, with Volume II, covering the 1960s to
the present. Like the HBO series, TheCold War can be viewed
chronologically, but each segment is written to stand alone.
Each hour will be repeated at least three times during the
week after its premiere in an effort to make the documentary's audience as broad as
possible. Every premiere hour will be followed by a half-hour of analysis and discussion.
In an effort to goose its ratings, CNN has announced its
intention to air documentaries.
'We're building up to it, creating a place, a
home on CNN. This is the ... challenge for us. Were we just going to suddenly take an
all-news network and drop a 24-hour documentary in it? We didn't think that would
work, either. That's why we launched this home for documentaries on Sunday nights at
[8 p.m. EST],' said Pat Mitchell, president of Time Inc.-CNN Productions.
Croasdale was impressed by CNN's investment and its
goal of creating a new destination time slot.
'That is a very difficult task, because they are the
first place that virtually every viewer clicks to at such time as a breaking-news story,
but you have to provide some form of programming to attract the viewers in down news
times,' he said.
The Cold War marks the first time that the British
Broadcasting Corp. has ever licensed out of its news department a program produced by
another broadcaster, according to Mitchell.
With more than 600 interviews, including the heads of state
of nearly every major country, and with more than 1 million feet of archive film, the
result is more than a documentary; it's an archive of the Cold War that Mitchell
hopes will be donated to an institution for continued use.
Like HBO, CNN's marketing commitment is its largest
ever, said Mitchell, who also hopes to spend nearly $2 million on educational outreach,
including free tapes.
Issacs has authored a companion book to be published in the
fall, and he will do a lecture series at major universities.
CNN already has two significant projects in the works to
follow TheCold War: David Wolper is producing 10 hours on the 20th century,
while Issacs is going to cover 1,000 years of history in a 10-hour series.
Another series in the estimated $20 million range, albeit
in a shorter time span, is USA's Moby Dick. USA is known for its original
contemporary movies and racy series, but on March 15 and 16, the network will make its
boldest effort yet to attract viewers looking for something more substantial or
Moby Dick is the latest in what Perth called 'our
big-event movie strategy based on American classic literature.' A four-hour
miniseries starring Patrick Stewart and Gregory Peck, it's also the longest, the
highest-budget and the first network project with Hallmark Entertainment.
Perth declined to say how much the network was spending on
the action-adventure miniseries -- only that the licensing fee and marketing support were
unprecedented for USA.
He bristled at the notion that Moby Dick might be an
effort to upgrade the network's image.
'I think that we've already achieved that,
frankly. In the last three-and-a-half years, we have significantly changed the USA image
in terms of some of the big-event movies that we've developed. We look forward to
positive reviews, and we're proud that USA is associated with this project, but I
think that the days of apologizing [for being] USA are way behind us,' Perth said.
While CNN focuses on reality, sister network TNT is banking
on science fiction. TNT has its usual roster of original movies and specials, but the
network's splashiest commitment this year is to a series: Babylon 5, produced
by Time Warner sibling Warner Bros.
TNT is spending more than $20 million on the 22 original
episodes and two movies that will air in 1998, and $5 million on off-channel marketing. In
addition, the network paid an undisclosed amount to acquire the exclusive North American
rights to reruns of the cult series' first four years.
'It's a series on one level, but it's a
collection of events on the other,' explained Safon.
The collection includes the first original movie, the
network premiere of the series pilot, the first new episode, the 100th episode (airing
sometime in April) and the series finale.
Safon knows that he has a core audience that will follow Babylon
5 anywhere, and he will aim his marketing toward using the milestones to bring in the
rest of the audience.
To Bruce Leichtman, director of media and entertainment
strategies for The Yankee Group in Boston, blockbusters are more important than ever.
'The audience is so fractional these days with all of
the networks out there that you've got to do something to separate yourself from the
pack. One reason why is to prove your value to cable operators and subscribers, and the
other is to generate ad revenue,' he said.
As for the premium services, added Leichtman,
'you've got to give people a reason to spend $12 a month.'
Any network hoping to change a television critic's
opinion with one high-profile quality program probably should change goals.
'You have to do more than one. I don't care if Moby
Dick is the best thing on television,' said Howard Rosenberg of The Los
Angeles Times. 'It would take a lot more than Moby Dick to turn around
But a well-received show can encourage reviewers to pay
more attention to the network's next effort.
New York Daily News critic Eric Mink termed it a
'smart strategy ... You do a small number of very high-profile, sort of event
programs, and you sort of create the impression, if things go as well as they possibly
could, that the presenting channel is creating all of this fantastic, expensive, first-run
programming. In fact, there's relatively little first-run programming being created
by these entities.'