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The Premium Advantage

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Premium channels are sometimes described as raunchy because of their penchant for uncut blockbuster films and original programming that test moral boundaries. Yet, at least one premium channel executive is hoping that the political firestorm over violence and sex on TV might actually help a certain gentle corner of their business — kids and family services.

Starz Entertainment Group vice president of program acquisitions Stephan Shelanski says operator Comcast Corp. is in the process of introducing a family tier and are very interested in increasing the promotional support for the company’s family services. “They loved the idea that we have two services,” he says, referring to Starz Kids & Family and the teen targeted Wam. “They’ve been pushing them hard on the kids and family section [of their video-on-demand offering.]”

For the most part, the premium networks haven’t responded to the controversy by dramatically changing the programming strategies of their kids and family services.

Neither Home Box Office nor Starz are significantly increasing the relatively limited original kids fare they currently produce, and Showtime ended a decades-long tradition of producing original family and kids fare last November when it showcased the last of its award-winning “All Ages” original films.

Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, isn’t surprised. He says those programming strategies reflect the fact that premium networks have been much less impacted by the political controversy over family-friendly content. Original fare has been less important because they’re already successful attracting people interested in family programming by “offering a ton of stuff on their multiplexed” kids and family services. Plus, viewers have to subscribe to HBO Family even if they’re after the main HBO channel.

Ann Foley, East Coast executive vice president of programming at Showtime, denies that the decision to end production of the “All Ages” films in any way indicates that they are less interested in family and kids programming.

“As long as we’ve been asking the question [of why consumers subscribe to premium channels], family programming has always been one of the top three reasons,” she says. “That hasn’t changed, even though media use and the way people use television has changed dramatically.”

Foley says Showtime decided to focus its original programming budget on creating higher profile adult fare, a strategy that has worked well for HBO.

Showtime’s family service offers Hollywood films and acquired series. “We are looking for things with a smart, unique voice from all over the world that you don’t see anywhere else,” Foley explains. One example is the popular Shoebox Zoo animated series from the British Broadcasting Co.

A very different strategy can be found at HBO Family, which has taken the unusual step of focusing on factual programming in the evening, says network vice president Dolores Morris.

She explains that the decision reflects the fact that they are managed by HBO’s documentary unit, but that it has also differentiates the network from other premium offerings.

Currently, HBO Family produces about two new specials a year, including Classical Baby, which won an Emmy, and I Have Tourette’s But Tourette’s Doesn’t Have Me.

In contrast, Starz Kids & Family focuses on theatrical films and recently added exclusive programs and sneak previews of upcoming films, Shelanski says. In November, for example, the network ran a 30-minute documentary on The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and a nine-minute sneak peak at the film.

Starz has rights to the Walt Disney theatrical films, including animated features from Pixar, notes Shelanski. “You couldn’t ask for a stronger brand for family programming.”