US cablenets prep for fall

A&E: Chasing youth
September 1, 2006

A&E: Chasing youth
As noted in the February/March issue of realscreen, a few years ago A&E faced a graying audience and realized it risked dying off with its loyal viewers. So it set out to grab the attention of a younger crowd. And so far the move has paid off, says Bob DeBitetto, EVP and GM at the network. DeBitetto credits the introduction of ‘observational docusoaps,’ such as Dog the Bounty Hunter, Inked and Criss Angel Mindfreak. And why not? In the last couple of years, A&E’s median age has plummeted from 61 to 42.

As a result, A&E recently introduced two new docusoaps: Driving Force follows the life of drag racer John Force and his clan, including a trio of daughters who are following in his pedal-to-the-medal footsteps; while Gene Simmons Family Jewels, which the net dubs a ‘cross between The Osbournes and Ozzy & Harriet,’ will give viewers an inside look at the Kiss bass player’s home life. DeBitetto adds: ‘We have introduced our brand to a whole new generation of viewers, and the shows that have really driven that are our real-life series.’ (Due to this younger viewership, the net is also enhancing its broadband and mobile offerings; for its real-life shows, A&E commissions companionate short-form content for the Web.)

What A&E tries to provide viewers with, adds DeBitetto, is an element of surprise. For instance, folks might tune into Dog the Bounty Hunter expecting it to be like Cops and be satisfied, but also be pleased with the unexpected, more emotional side of Dog. DeBitetto expects Family Jewels in particular to have this type of effect.

In the last three years, the net has also successfully courted more men. ‘The audience would, on given nights, skew 65% or more female, and shows like Dog, Criss Angel, Driving Force and some of our justice programming, such as Dallas Swat, have helped bring in more men.’

DeBitetto also has high hopes for the introduction of the drama CSI Miami this fall (it will be used at 8:00 p.m. as a lead-in across the schedule), as well as the debut of The Sopranos in January. ‘We’re looking at what we think is a very exciting period at A&E, where we have several shows [such as Dog, Driving Force and Criss Angel] that are enjoying million-impression delivery in our key demos, and yet we haven’t even begun to reap the benefits of these two key acquisitions.’

The GM says the net plans to capitalize on its expected growth by launching even more original programming, but this time in the form of drama series, which it will be ‘quietly’ working on throughout next year. ‘The idea is that with platforms like CSI and Sopranos, it’s too attractive not to develop and offer one or two of our own original drama series, which will help define our brand and bring one more component to our programming mix.’

Court TV: ‘Real, Exciting and Dramatic’
Interestingly, while A&E brings CSI Miami into its 8:00 p.m. timeslot, Court TV will continue to air counter programming to the scripted dramas that tend to hog the TV dial at that hour. Last January, the net unleashed Court TV RED, which stands for ‘real, exciting and dramatic,’ in part to give viewers a different choice at 8 p.m., says Marc Juris, GM of programming and marketing.

‘We thought it would be more strategic to counter the storytelling of our competitors with a more verité action show. We felt it would be a strong way to improve our 18-to-49 viewing because they like the fast pace,’ he says, adding that this belief led to programs like Beach Patrol San Diego, Video Justice and Cops. The result? According to Nielsen Galaxy, between January 2 and July 24, 2006, Court TV RED was the fastest growing non-fiction net among adults 18-to-49 when compared to the previous year. During that time, the net increased its RED adult audience by 32% and its male 18-to-49 audience by 53%.

No wonder then that Court TV plans to fortify RED for fall, when it debuts Bounty Girls, starring a team of female bounty hunters in Miami, and expands its show Texas Swat, now dubbed Swat USA.

Meanwhile, to support the on-air version of RED, this summer the net launched its RED broadband channel, which includes viewer-captured content, as well as exclusive online short docs. There are also a number of broadband channels in the works, says Juris. ‘We’re trying to lay the foundation for a truly multi-dimensional brand that lives and can live on any platform. Our goal is to continue to build our brand as the best place for mystery investigation and real-life verité.’

Along with its new RED offerings, Court TV will also launch Murder They Wrote this fall, featuring five top crime writers who will each share their favorite real-life crime story. ‘It’s a great way to repackage and reposition a true crime story, given the filter and pov of the best-selling writer. And hopefully we’ll bring their fan base to the network.’ To that end, the station will hook up with major booksellers and publishers to market the program through in-store signings, author fan sites and viral campaigns.

Discovery: Discovering more genres
There was once a time when the Discovery Channel was ‘a bit too much in love with bikes and cars,’ says Jane Root, EVP and GM of the net. That all changed two years ago, when Root came onboard and began to push the channel into new territories. ‘Sometimes, in the past, we were in danger of becoming a single-genre network, and that’s not the case for us anymore.’

Obviously, along with the obsession with cars and bikes came a large male following, but the ratio is now more along the lines of 60/40 male/female, according to Root. ‘One of the things the network has done is to try to have more shows that include women,’ she says, noting, ‘On our network, you won’t find shows that are just for women, but we like shows that work for them.’ An example, she says, is the new ‘crime and forensic programming,’ and in particular a show called Most Evil, which explores how psychologists characterize killers.

Coming off eight straight months of continuous growth in all dayparts (9 a.m. to 3 p.m.), Discovery will continue to ‘push out in a lot of different places, and come up with lots of surprising shows’ for fall, promises Root. One such entry is Atlas, which she calls a ‘huge initiative for the company.’ Beginning on Oct. 1, the program will showcase the cultures, social diversities and natural phenomena of 20 countries.

Other newcomers include Nearly History, recounting newsworthy events of the last 30 years, such as 9/11 and Waco; and for science enthusiasts, the program Big Science. Meanwhile Ted Koppel has joined the net, partially to host a weekly broadband newscast, for which participants can ask questions and Koppel will help track down the answers. [For more, see Questioning Koppel on pg. 24.]

Being an all-original hours network, Discovery is always looking for new content, says Root, particularly in the areas of history, science, technology and engineering. But, she’s quick to add, the channel is also open to exploring new topics, such as anthropology.

HGTV: The lifestyle network
Like the other nets listed here, HGTV is focused on the 25-to-54 demo, and especially the 25-to-49 ‘sweetspot.’ But, within that large group, the net says shows will cater younger, or to a specific gender, depending on when they air. Michael Dingley, SVP of programming and content strategy, explains that prime one (8 p.m. to 10 p.m.) targets the traditional broad adult demo, but that prime two (10 p.m. to 12 a.m.) skews slightly younger. And on Saturday and Sunday mornings, between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m., the net will air programs geared at men, while on those same days between 1 p.m. to primetime, the female demo is the primary target. ‘Depending on the daypart or actual vehicle we’re creating, we’ll either target one, two or all groups,’ observes Dingley.

One of the new younger-targeted shows for the 10 p.m. to midnight block is Junk Brothers, which stars a pair of male siblings who are experts at salvaging curbside cast-offs. Others include Design in a Day, Hidden Potential, which demonstrates how a fixer-upper can become a dream home, and Making of a Design Star. The latter is a limited series starring the winner of Design Star, a reality show featuring contestants who compete to become the host of a new program.

Other new installations include Haulin’ House, which moves historical homes to new locations and, in the Saturday to Sunday morning block, Hammered with the Diresta Brothers, which features a comedian and a creative talent building unique items such as aquariums and boats.

Dingley explains that over the years, HGTV has evolved from a step-by-step home improvement network to a ‘lifestyle network centered on the home. We don’t really have any how-to on air.’ Having said that, the net has decided to house informational programming online. Every quarter, the station launches a brand new series on that ties into a series on-air, he says. ‘It’s not simply ‘Here’s another two minutes of footage that wasn’t seen on-air,’ or ‘Here’s an episode of the on-air series that has been compressed to run in four minutes.’ That’s, like, three years ago. What we’re doing now is developing overall concepts for content that have an umbrella title but take the best advantage of the unique differences and strengths of both platforms.’

Design Star was HGTV’s first ‘major multi-platform event’ with unique content, such as exit interviews, offered at Coming up, says Charity Curley, brand director of the site, will be programming that compliments Hammered with the Diresta Brothers. The goal, says Curley, is to ‘make it stand alone and be as sticky as possible.’

The History Channel: Can It repeat itself?
Dan Davids, president of The History Channel, reports the network has enjoyed much success over the first part of 2006. In fact, the station is ranked number 10 in the delivery of adults 25-to-54. So why make drastic changes for the future?

Davids says the uplift is tied to thc’s strategy of ‘doing specials on things that people are familiar with, and by doing series on subjects that people aren’t necessarily so familiar with – or looking at those subjects in different ways.’ As an example, he cites the special True Caribbean Pirates, which coincided with the launch of the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and pulled in a 2.0 household rating. A recent series debut, meanwhile, is Lost Worlds, which reconstructs once-formidable cities using computer graphics. It scored 1.3 million total viewers in two premieres.

With a definitively male-skewing demo at 70%, much of the programming continues to capture the imagination of the average guy. Examples for fall include Dog Fights, a series that invites fighter pilots to recall their aviation battles while computer graphics simulate the experience for viewers, as well as Lost Evidence, which recounts key land battles in Europe and Asia. A third series that’s likely to whet the appetite of History’s male demo is Where Did It Come From?, which studies ‘everything from high-rise apartments to skyscrapers to weapons of mass destruction’ and determines their roots.

Despite the male-heavy content, The History Channel has also introduced shows it expects women to tune into. Examples include America Eats, which debuted this summer, as well as upcoming specials such as Desperate Crossing, a recounting of the Mayflower voyage, and Lincoln, which naturally ‘tells all’ about Abe. Also, following the buzz surrounding last year’s Rome: Engineering an Empire, which drew an audience that included 37% women and scored a 2.4 household rating, the net will premiere Egypt: Engineering an Empire in October, and from there the format will be turned into a series featuring various civilizations.

Also new for fall, says Davids, the net has relaunched its website to be more viewer-focused and rich, with video clips, speeches and behind-the-scenes footage of various programs. ‘We’re trying to satisfy the needs of a more upscale, better educated, very busy and mobile audience,’ he says. ‘We’re out there in the tv landscape competing with a whole host of other forms of entertainment… We need to put the most unique, compelling, entertaining historical product we can on the screen in order to get them to make an appointment to tune in.’ So far, the net is gaining viewers: in total thc is averaging 525,000 adult 25-to-54 impressions for 2006 to date, two percent more than in 2005.

National Geographic: sticking to its roots
While some specialty nets are banking on being able to continue to cash in on the never-say-die reality craze, National Geographic prefers not to go there. ‘We’ve tried to stay away from the reality herd and do what we do best, which is high-quality documentary programming that covers core genres of science, natural history, exploration and history,’ explains John Ford, EVP programming.

Similar to The History Channel, ngc skews male (at 60%) and targets adults who are somewhat upscale, more professional and better educated – ‘but not dramatically so compared to the rest of the population,’ notes Ford. And while he describes the net as the ‘fastest growing cable network in the US in the last couple of years,’ he admits ‘our ratings goals are higher. So, one of the things we’re doing is increasing our number of hours.’

While National Geographic plans to stick to its roots, at the same time it aims to ‘contemporize’ its programming to ensure it keeps pace with viewers’ expectations and altering tastes. ‘We try to push the boundaries while making sure we respect the values of the brand,’ Ford explains, pointing to the special Inside 9/11, its highest-rated show ever, as an example. ‘The first night we did a 2.5 household, the second a 3.6, and people gravitated toward that because of the authority and quality of the information.’

Going forward this fall, the net will introduce The Final Report, which Ford believes will be a ‘signature series.’ It will give insight into events that went down in contemporary history, such as the LA Riots and Jonestown. Meanwhile, the station is hoping to repeat its success with World’s Most Dangerous Game when it airs World’s Most Dangerous Drug, about how crystal meth is destroying lives in North America.

Another key for the net, according to Ford, is to offer immersive programming, such as In the Womb: Multiples, which will premiere in September, and In the Womb: Animals, which will air in January. The shows use special inside-the-womb technology, as did the well-received In the Womb, which debuted in early 2005. Another upcoming special is Eye of the Leopard, featuring an up-close look at the life of a cub.

There’s also a tactical change for fall; ratings success Dog Whisperer moves from Fridays to Mondays at 9 p.m. when its third season begins in October. ‘It will effectively counter program Monday Night Football because it tends to skew female. And also it’s a higher, HUT [i.e., homes using television] level night, with more people tuning in. If we can command the same share as Friday nights, we’ll get a higher rating.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.