Programming executives from U.S. cable networks FYI and LMN, Al Jazeera America, ReelzChannel and The Weather Channel outlined their unscripted strategies during the final session of the 2014 Realscreen Summit on Wednesday (January 29).
During the “Amping Up Unscripted” panel moderated by realscreen editor Barry Walsh, four execs talked original programming, rights deals and best practices when pitching.
FYI and LMN Channels president Jana Bennett explained the strategy behind A+E’s recent rebranding of Bio as FYI, a lifestyle network aimed at “inspiring personal creativity” among a young upscale audience. Her programming team is looking to young bloggers that cover an array of topics – fashion, food, home and work space interiors – for inspiration and talent.
“It is time for television to go back to that holistic view of life,” said Bennett, adding that she hopes to spread the content around the schedule to avoid rigidly structured theme nights. “We think we should mix it up a bit but we will have buckets like [living] space, taste and social. We don’t want to make [the schedule] a relentless stacking but you’ll find an order in the creativity.”
FYI has 30 projects in development and Bennett intends to commission 300 hours of original programming during the first year. In the meantime, she is bringing some acquired lifestyle programming onto Bio to provide continuity for the transition, which will happen “earlier rather than later” this summer.
As for the female-skewing LMN, Bennett is looking to bring in more unscripted to support the feature films that comprise the majority of its programming. In particular, she wants detective, crime and paranormal series, thrillers and shows that are gritty and dark in tone, such as the recently greenlit Killer Profile.
“It’s an intense audience,” she said.
Kathy Davidov, who became the senior executive of documentaries for Al Jazeera America last August, said she is still brushing up against misconceptions among producers who think the nascent cable news net is primarily focused on the Middle East.
“We’re an American network programming for an American audience,” she said, adding that programming with appeal to Middle America is of particular interest. “We don’t know exactly who our audience is [yet] and where we’re going with this. We’re really open to stories that start a conversation.”
To complement its news coverage, Al Jazeera is acquiring and coproducing original series, feature documentaries, one-offs, specials and correspondent-led docs amounting to 52 original hours per year.
The network is working with documentarians such as Albert Maysles, Barbara Kopple and Alex Gibney and will begin airing the docuseries Borderland in March. The show takes six people with differing views on the immigration debate and sends them on a mission to retrace the lives of migrants who died in the desert while attempting to illegally enter the U.S. via Arizona.
Davidov added that although the first few docs have been full commissions, she is open to negotiate around rights.
In 2012, Hollywood-centric cable net ReelzChannel started shifting its focus away from movies and syndicated sitcoms to compatible reality programs, such as Beverly Hills Pawn, Hollywood Scandals and Hollywood Hillbillies.
The network made headlines in 2011 after it scooped up the scripted miniseries The Kennedys starring Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes, which had been dropped by History. SVP of programming Steve Cheskin told the panel that owner Stan E. Hubbard is looking to make similar splashes in the unscripted space.
“When we see something other networks might not be willing to touch, we might take that on,” he said, using the upcoming High Noon Entertainment-produced reality show Polka Kings as an example. “Not too many people are out there doing polka. Stan sees the show having an appeal beyond the polka audience because of the personalities.”
Cheskin is looking to grow Reelz’ 150 hours of original programming with docusoaps and family-centered reality series, lifestyles of the rich and famous-type programs and crime documentaries.
He also said the network is flexible when it comes to rights deals. “If it makes sense for us we’ll take limited U.S. rights.”
The Weather Channel hired Mary Ellen Iwata three years ago to ramp up its reality offerings as VP of original content and development.
Most viewers tune in mornings for the weather but typically turn to local news or other outlets in the evenings. She told the panel she initially relied on “weather porn” to fill 200 hours – mostly primetime and weekends – of original programming but her strategy has since evolved to encompass a mix of character-driven docuseries and science shows, such as Prospectors, Reef Wranglers and Deadliest Space Weather. She also has a survival series and spear-fishing show Reel Rivals on the way.
However, DirecTV is using The Weather Channel’s addition of reality programming as a wedge issue in a fee carriage dispute that resulted in the satellite provider no longer carrying the network as of earlier this month.
In the panel, Iwata countered that the channel preempts its series to cover severe weather and has started scrolling forecasts tailored to local markets as part of a rebrand last November.
“We’re not going to change anything. Obviously we’re disappointed with the DirecTV thing,” Iwata told the panel, asserting that “reality TV is not the problem. There are other issues in the DirecTV dispute.”
“It won’t affect my role. When there’s no weather, we still have to get a rating in primetime,” she added.
Going forward, Iwata is looking to commission a live special or stunt to build on The Weather Channel’s daily live coverage and popular mobile app.