TV

Spike’s Sharon Levy: “It’s an exciting time to reinvent.”

Spike TV's EVP of original series Sharon Levy (pictured) tells realscreen about the Viacom cable net's unscripted strategy as it moves away from the man cave and closer to general entertainment.
March 23, 2015

Spike TV has emerged from the man cave.

Earlier this month, execs completed the Viacom-owned cable channel’s evolution from action-packed men’s network to a general entertainment brand equally weighted to men and women with a slate emphasizing celebrities and scripted series.

The change has been a gradual one. In 2011, Spike parted ways with the Ultimate Fighting Championship and rebranded with a cinematic on-air look and focus to reality shows with broad appeal, such as Ink Masters and Bar Rescue. Last year, TNA’s Impact Wrestling shifted to Discovery-owned Destination America.

During an upfront presentation in New York City on March 3, Spike unveiled a new logo and tagline (“Spike: The Ones to Watch”) and its plans to ramp up production on the kind of edgy, high-end dramas that air on HBO and Netflix.

Meanwhile, the unscripted slate announced included 3 Ball Entertainment-produced reality competition Sweat Inc., hosted by fitness expert and Biggest Loser mentor Jillian Michaels; Jimmy Fallon’s star-studded Lip Sync Battle; and new seasons of female-friendly reality hits Bar Rescue and Ink Master.

Spike is also teaming with Dwayne Johnson and Dany Garcia’s $7 Bucks Productions on yet-to-be-announced live events, sports and specials involving American military troops and veterans.

The channel will still be “male facing,” according to EVP of original series Sharon Levy (pictured), but female viewers will now have equal consideration in programming decisions. Following Spike’s rebrand, realscreen spoke to Levy about her unscripted strategy going into 2016.

How long has the network been transitioning into a general entertainment network?
It’s been quite a while. We had a great opportunity when the UFC and Spike parted ways to look at where we wanted to take the channel and we realized that within the Viacom portfolio there was a need for a general entertainment network. We already had a balance of reality and sports so adding scripted to that plan really filled it out. We also knew the path to ratings success would be to encourage female viewers to come to our channel. That was a very conscious decision going as far back as to buying Ink Master.

Ink Master has a lot of female viewers?
We knew tattoo shows had skewed female and primarily they had been on more female networks. What we did with that show was took an art form and looked at it from a male point of view that was very female friendly. Our cast is very heavily female. Bar Rescue skews 50-50 as well. Our top reality shows have been bringing in women more and more and part of changing our logo, offering shows like Lip Sync Battle, and diving into scripted is about helping us to secure a co-viewing environment at Spike.

So what type of programming are you looking for now in terms of unscripted?
We are always going to be what we call ‘male facing,’ which means we’re not suddenly going to go off and do bridal shop shows. That’s just too far to the left. Now we’re looking for more gender balanced programs. The level of talent we now have on the channel –Adam Carolla, John Taffer, Jillian Michaels, Sir Ben Kingsley, LL Cool J – we’ve blown the doors off talent expectations on Spike. If you look at our shows, they’re big and they’re broad and they still have an edge to them but also highlight ambition and a lot of key tenets that we think will help propel the brand forward.

Everyone wants premium content nowadays. Will you focus on making scripted your big, tent-pole programs or is there room for unscripted in that mix?
There will always be room for unscripted. One of the new announcements that we made was about the Jillian Michaels show, Sweat Inc. Jillian is probably one of the biggest broadcast stars in unscripted, and bringing her to Spike as one of our first female faces for a new show tells you our seriousness in moving forward.

Obviously, the dramas that we are interested in will be competitive with all the amazing premium offerings out there, both on linear and on digital platforms. We want to do it well. We want to do it right. On our first scripted endeavor, which is Tut, we went big. We shot it entirely in Morocco. The scripts are so good that Sir Ben Kingsley said yes to the project. I’m hoping that sets the tone of what’s to come. We have scripted projects in development with Pierce Brosnan as an executive producer, Gary Oldman as an executive producer, Dana Brunetti as an executive producer. These are big guns in that world.

There will be a balance on the channel of scripted, reality and sports and that’s really at the essence of what a general entertainment network is.

What are you looking for in terms of unscripted genres and formats?
Our network does have formats. Bar Rescue is certainly a format. We have a new series coming out in the fall called Family Takeover, which helps families in a financial bind out of the mess. We’re very hopeful for that. Catch a Contractor, while a lot of it is verité, there are beats that happen. We love docusoaps too – we haven’t’ had one in a bit. We’re always looking for them.

The most important thing for me is to be not derivative. Right now, reality is in a bit of a conundrum. There hasn’t been a huge, break-out hit in quite a while. How do you upend that? How do you genre bust? How do you find the next thing? With the scripted world being so hot right now, we’re looking for storytelling inspiration. Can we tell a story in a new way? When the chips are down for a genre, it’s an exciting time to reinvent. There’s nothing that’s off limits.

Are there production or storytelling techniques you’re looking at to shake up unscripted?
The glut of sameness across every medium has caused viewers to be so savvy, like, ‘Oh, this is when this is going to happen’ or ‘This is when the dramatic music sting will happen.’ How many celebrities can you watch scream at each other? We’re all on social media constantly, monitoring our every move with Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and whatever is next. I love that modern take and we have some pilots in development that contend with that.

Are you interested in programming documentaries?
You look how The Jinx just lit HBO on fire and I was a big fan of Showtime’s The Years of Living Dangerously because on a production level it looked beautiful. It has to be the right thing.

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