Sundance's Wide Shot

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Trying to move its image beyond independent films into independent thinking, Sundance Channel is placing a new focus on high-profile original programming and supporting those initiatives with integrated marketing campaigns.

Sundance reshuffled its ranks last Monday, cutting 10 staffers and adding the first of some new hires. It wants to boost its base of signature original programming, complemented by the acquisition of more multipart documentaries and narrative TV series.

CEO Larry Aidem said the 22 million-subscriber network will move away from internal production to more commissioning and licensing of shows from leading TV and film directors and independent producers in the U.S. and internationally.

LIMITED SERIES COMING

Upcoming projects will include a pair of commissioned limited series to be announced later this month. One will be produced in conjunction with one of the network's parents, NBC Universal and Viacom Inc., according to Laura Michalchyshyn, executive vice president of marketing and programming.

Sundance will continue to acquire documentaries and feature films for first-window presentations, while also seeking out strong library titles.

The broadening of Sundance's programming palette comes in response to research that Aidem said indicates 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.”

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

Along those lines, Michalchyshyn, who came on board in January from Alliance Atlantis Communications, also is exploring relationships with programmers and creative executives in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

Sundance has just secured the pay TV rights to Kath & Kim, Australia's most popular comedy series in 2002-04, network officials said. Sundance will premiere the show's third season in the U.S. in December and then encore the first two seasons, which ran on Trio, in 2006.

The show has a reality-TV format in which the camera follows empty-nesting mother Kath (Jane Turner) and daughter Kim (Gina Riley) in the fictitious Melbourne suburb of Fountain Lakes.

Third-season guests include Geoffrey Rush, Rachel Griffiths (Six Feet Under) and Kylie Minogue.

Michalchyshyn also points to the acquisition of 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 that's been running under Sundance's “DOCday” banner on Monday nights in April. Staircase previously aired on the BBC and Canal Plus.

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

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

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

IMPACT ON JOBS

Aidem said 10 staffers, mostly from the in-house production unit, lost their jobs. Some will be succeeded by new hires in the areas of creative design and other disciplines.

The network, which counts Robert Redford as an owner, has hired former Showtime Networks Inc. executive Jennie Morris as director of scheduling and program planning. Gail Gendler has been promoted to senior director of acquisitions.

Both report to Christian Vesper, vice president of acquisitions, scheduling and program planning.

Also joining Sundance is Valerie Bruce, as vice president of legal and business affairs, formerly senior counsel at VH1.

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