The down low on cable nets

With over 75 cable networks to follow at Chicago-based Spark Communications, associate media director Nancy Huck has her share of opinions about hits and misses in the cable TV realm.
August 1, 2008

With over 75 cable networks to follow at Chicago-based Spark Communications, associate media director Nancy Huck has her share of opinions about hits and misses in the cable TV realm.

She lauds History for its thriving Ice Road Truckers and the channel’s efforts to replicate that hit. ‘They’ve learned they need to create stories and people the audience can relate to,’ says Huck, contrasting that to the narrative documentaries that dominated the channel in the past.

Another most-improved candidate is E!, for creating fresh programming and promoting it well. Finally going beyond the True Hollywood Story‘s with hits like Denise Richards: It’s Complicated and Living Lohan, E! rightfully capitalized on the US’ hungry desire for all things celebrity, says Huck. However, the cable expert did caution E! and other networks like MTV and VH1 to be careful with their limited series, such as E!’s new show Pam: Girl on the Loose, which only has eight episodes. ‘Can you turn this into something that you might catch [audiences with], and once they’re done with Pamela, do you have the next thing that’s going to keep them?’

However, Huck also advises cable nets to be careful not to oversaturate their sked with hits. TLC ‘goes in cycles of doing too much Trading Spaces for a few years and a lot of What Not to Wear and [now] bride shows and Jon & Kate plus 8,’ says Huck. She recommends networks constantly refresh and shore up on programming.

One network that was on the verge of an identity crisis is Discovery Channel. Huck believes that for a few years it got away from some of its roots, but has been going strong ever since Planet Earth became such a phenomenon. ‘I think they’re going back to making themselves more science and nature oriented because they strayed from that a little bit, hence some of the programs last year that moved over to TLC, like American Chopper,’ observes Huck. Since the refocus on the ‘discovery’ element of the network, the ratings have been consistently strong.

Over at Bravo, Huck believes the net will do just fine once Project Runway jumps to Lifetime, thanks in part to the creation of destination nights for shows like Runway (in rerun), Top Chef and The Real Housewives. ‘Project Runway is a loss for them, but they’ll survive,’ she says. ‘They’ve been smart, spending the program development wisely and programming very cleverly.’

New kid to the block Planet Green is currently on-air without Nielsen ratings, making charting its success a little tricky for media buyers. ‘As much as we want ratings, they have to figure out how to program,’ says Huck. Since the network is still figuring out its programming, agencies like Spark are eagerly awaiting to see how audiences feel about green-themed television. In the meantime, ‘you can get results in other ways beyond Nielsen ratings; if they’ve got anything that’s driving to online on-air and back and forth, and involves a client that has a response mechanism in it, you can sometimes get a good read of what’s going on.’

Even with all of the Nielsen ratings, it’s sometimes a game of wait-and-see for media agencies when networks shift to a different mandate, as truTV has. ‘TruTV has Turner behind them and they’re really working hard to put together a schedule that is strong and will bring more viewers,’ says Huck. Upcoming show Principal’s Office sounds like a hit and Man vs. Cartoon feels a bit like MythBusters to Huck. She shows surprise at the latter’s placement on truTV, since it felt more like a Discovery or Science Channel program to her.

Another network fiddling with its previous incarnation is Animal Planet, which is determined to lose the warm fuzzy and get edgier, says Huck. ‘Has it really changed the audience profile yet? I really don’t know,’ she says. The old, doc-focused Animal Planet has always done well with females and the family demo. ‘They come up as okay [in research studies] but not always rising to the top in choices,’ she says. Perhaps the new programming will take the network up a few levels.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.