Pivot president Evan Shapiro (pictured) tells realscreen how the Participant-backed TV channel plans to avoid the fate of social action-focused predecessors such as Current TV and Planet Green, and why Nielsen ratings will remain important.
Nearly three months after announcing it had taken over U.S. networks Halogen TV and Documentary Channel, Participant Media yesterday (March 27) lifted the lid on its social action TV channel at an inaugural upfront in New York City.
Social action entertainment channel Pivot, launching August 1, will open with a slate that includes feature documentaries, reality, drama series, variety shows and an open source talk show.
Explaining the thinking behind the network’s name to realscreen, Pivot president Evan Shapiro says that “the world is on a path right now, but there are many different paths that we can choose. We’re not necessarily saying which one’s the right one, but we know where we’re headed right now is not working. So it’s time to shift, and it’s time to pivot.”
Parent company Participant Media has a strong track record with social action films at the box office, counting docs such as The Cove, An Inconvenient Truth and Food Inc. among its successes, as well as fact-based dramas such as Lincoln and The Help.
But the TV market is a new one for the company, and a notoriously difficult place for social action ventures.
Pivot’s two closest predecessors – Planet Green and Current TV – both failed to gain traction and ratings, with the former ending up rebranded as Destination America, and the latter being sold to Al Jazeera. OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, meanwhile, has seen its ratings improve after moving in a more general entertainment direction.
Nevertheless, Shapiro is confident the network can avoid the pitfalls that its predecessors have faced. “While we have this mandate for social action and we’re addressing an audience of Millennials, we are a general entertainment network,” he says.
“Look at our slate: scripted drama, a music variety show, a reality show, a live talk show. We are not so niche that we will be irrelevant. And if you look at the failed social action networks, I think what they tried to do was be so niche that they weren’t interesting – they weren’t entertaining.
“And I can only say this about them because both of them [Planet Green and Current TV] are literally failed, both of them don’t exist anymore,” he adds. “While I believe in niche audiences and really catering to the audience that you want, at the same time I don’t believe in becoming so niche that you don’t have an audience.”
One of the headline-grabbing ways that Pivot is attempting to stand out from the pay-TV crowd is through its innovative distribution model, which includes offering TV-less subscribers the chance to buy a broadband-only subscription package for what will be “basically less than the price of a cup of coffee” per month.
Regarding the attractive nature of such an offering to Pivot’s target Millennial audience, Shapiro says: “The idea that they’re going to leave college into the worst job economy in a generation, and blithely sign up for the same pay-TV packages that everybody’s been signing up to – that’s not what’s happening.
“The industry tends to think in binary terms,” he explains. “They tend to see the world as black and white – it’s either online, or on TV. But what we’re saying is, ‘no, it’s both.’
“And I don’t think this is the case with distributors necessarily – distributors are very progressive in the ways they’re trying to address the needs of their consumers. I think this is just the programming community.”
His comments come less than a week after HBO CEO Richard Plepler admitted for the first time that his pay-TV network was considering untethering its popular HBO Go service from cable subscriptions, allowing TV-less fans to subscribe and watch shows like Veep and Games of Thrones through laptops and tablets.
Shapiro says the TV industry is “in danger of losing” a new generation of viewers from the pay-TV ecosystem altogether, if it is not prepared to make concessions.
Nevertheless, he concedes that traditional Nielsen ratings will still be important to Pivot. “We won’t be rated at launch, but we will be rated at some point in the near future, and we do worry about Nielsen ratings, because it’s currency – it’s the measurement tool,” he says.
“But Nielsen, too, has to come along, and we’re gratified to see that they’re actually going to include online viewing, starting this fall, in their ratings. We’d love to see them broaden their horizons to include mobile as well.”
With the network gearing up for its late summer launch, Shapiro says “we’re probably 60% of the way there” in terms of programming for the first year. “But we’re also mapping out 2014, 2015 and 2016 too – there’s lots to get done.”
One potential growth area he does see for the network is in live event programming. The channel will launch with TakePart Live, a topical talk show that will air five nights a week, but Shapiro sees more opportunities.
“Young people do like to watch TV live,” he says. “They have ‘fomo’ – fear of missing out – they can’t be the last person in their friendship circle to get the news about something. So we want to do more live programming and more original programming, but also be a home for great non-fiction films… that can’t find footing in theaters.”
And for producers, he also has a clear message. “Remember, it’s entertainment that inspires social change,” he says. “It’s not social change that’s entertaining. The second thing is, look, we’re open. If you look at the talent that we’re working with here, that’s a pretty nice range.
“But what we don’t want to do is the same stuff that’s always been done – we want to try to create change.”