Oh the irony of it all.
All over the world, producers of information and lifestyle programming look enviously at their American counterparts. They see a land of milk and honey, where the cable spectrum is full, and the channels reach out to the indie production sector for novel shows and fresh approaches – and pay producers for them.
That, much to the chagrin of North American producers, is not quite the case. Our survey of lifestyle-oriented u.s. cable specialty services (p.36) indicates a less-than-open-arms philosophy when it comes to hearing pitches from indies.
In fact, looking at the overall picture, the self-reliance on in-house programming content should spark trepidation in the hearts of these specialty services. There’s a new digital tier pending in the u.s., bringing with it much more viewer choice and potentially new services backed by some deep pockets and international brands – and the program offerings of the lifestyle-oriented services currently on the tube are not up to the task.
Granted, the lot of an American specialty channel (outside of the likes of a&e and Discovery) is not easy. There’s fragmentation, there’s carriage wars, there’s tons of competition. But homespun common sense says that the way to beat the competition, especially in an arena where the demographics are sliced so thinly among so many, is to offer something viewers can’t get anywhere else.
Alarmingly, the trend is moving in the opposite direction. Perhaps having realized they’d gone too niche to turn a profit, or becoming unable to find the specific programming they were looking for on the free market, the group-b specialties either started bringing production in-house, or spent their scant funds on what they thought were sure-fire, unbeatable acquisitions.
And the result? The BBC’s Two Fat Ladies can be found on any North American outlet that has even a remote association to food (and on some which don’t even have that); female-themed Lifetime is full of movies anyone with an inclination could rent at their local Blockbuster; Golf Channel wants to get away from how-to golf programs in favour of news-and-information programming about golf-related issues; and The Food Network urges producers to forget pitching cooking shows, because it’s looking for something more historical in nature. (Wouldn’t viewers looking for something historical in nature tune into The History Channel? Just asking… )
Meanwhile, TLC has thrown out a tender (albeit half-hearted) for gardening shows, for example, so Home and Garden and Outdoor Life had best look out. If TLC throws a little money behind their lawns-and-flowers shows, plus has the resources to do a little promotion for them, that’s where viewers are more likely to head for their mulch fix. So TLC builds itself up as the place to go for gardening shows, leaving one less area of interest for the other services to build a name around.
It comes back to the b-word again: branding, not barter. In a sea of viewing options, a hodgepodge of barter-bought tv with no distinguishable or memorable thematic connection is all but lost. Facing new competition, and carriage space becoming as rare as a license fee from The Outdoor Channel, the lifestyle-oriented cable services have got some work to do; namely, creating programming identities for themselves.
Warning: it probably can’t be bought with three minutes of airtime.
Mary Ellen Armstrong, Editor