Sundance Refocuses on Originals


As part of a restructuring, Sundance Channel is placing a new focus on ramping up high-profile original programming and supporting those initiatives with integrated marketing campaigns.

Sundance -- which is also reshuffling its staff in the wake of the changes -- wants to increase its base of signature original programming, complemented by the acquisition of more multipart documentaries and narrative TV series.

To support those goals, CEO Larry Aidem said the network -- which currently counts 22 million subscribers -- will move away from an internal production unit and instead rely more on the commissioning and licensing of shows from leading TV and film directors and independent producers, both in the United States and internationally.

Among the upcoming projects is a pair of commissioned limited series the network will announce next month. One will be a joint project with one of the network’s parents, NBC Universal and Viacom Inc., according to executive vice president of marketing and programming Laura Michalchyshyn.

Moreover, while Sundance will continue to acquire docs and feature films for first-window presentations, it will also seek out strong library titles.

The broadening of Sundance’s programming palette comes in response to research that Aidem said indicated that only “5% consider themselves to be independent-film fanatics. But more than 25% consider themselves to be independent thinkers and open to an expanded type of programming format. That’s where Laura will go.”

“We’ve had conversations with a lot of directors who would love to make films, documentaries or series on the network,” Michalchyshyn said.

Along those lines, Michalchyshyn, who joined the network in January, is also exploring relationships with programmers and creative executives in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

She pointed out that Staircase -- an eight-part miniseries following the twists and turns of the investigation of the death of Durham, N.C., resident and Nortel Networks Inc. executive Kathleen Peterson, which has been running under Sundance’s “DOCday” banner Monday nights in April -- previously aired on the British Broadcasting Corp. and Canal Plus.

As Sundance seeks to go wider, procedural shows like 24 Frame News and Anatomy of a Scene will be reduced from full-blown shows to interstitials, running between three and seven minutes, Aidem said.

From a marketing perspective, Sundance wants to unleash more fully integrated programs like it did with its recent campaign behind Staircase. The second-season launch of The Al Franken Show, slated for June 6, will receive similar high-profile support, tying to the on-air backing, according to Michalchyshyn.

She said Franken and other projects would receive considerable cross-promotional support across NBC U and MTV Networks properties.

Along with the change in corporate strategy, Aidem said, 10 staffers lost their jobs. Some of those will be succeeded by new hires in the areas of creative design and other disciplines.

The network -- which also counts Robert Redford as an owner -- has hired Jennie Morris, a former Showtime executive, to serve as director of scheduling and program planning, while Gail Gendler has been promoted to senior director of acquisitions. Both will report to Christian Vesper, whose role has been expanded from acquisitions to VP of acquisitions, scheduling and program planning.

Also joining the network is Valerie Bruce, who will serve as VP, legal and business affairs, after working as senior counsel at VH1.