RSW ’14: TruTV, Leftfield execs talk reinvention strategies

TruTV's programming head outlined the network's new direction during a panel discussion about the ways cable nets and their production partners are reinventing in order to remain competitive. (Pictured L-R: Chris Linn, David George, Mike Stiller)
June 6, 2014

(Photo: Rahoul Ghose)

Competition from digital platforms is causing networks and their production partners to rethink how they approach their businesses, TruTV programming head Chris Linn (pictured, right) told a panel at Realscreen West on Wednesday (June 4).

Linn, who left MTV last year to join the Turner-owned cable net, explained that as millennial audiences who have grown up watching programming on Netflix and other platforms continue moving further along the 18-49 demo the bar gets higher for traditional TV to grab their attention.

“We’re hearing directly from the audience but we’re also seeing it in the ratings,” he said. “The audience is tired of conflict-oriented, super structured and over-produced reality.”

As such, TruTV is broadening its slate from largely reality comedy into docuseries, scripted and competition programs aimed at an upscale male-female audience, or as Linn put it, programming “for grown-ups.”

Upcoming programs include the docuseries Local News, the competition show Motor City Masters and the magic series The Carbonaro Effect.

The session, which was moderated by Atlas Media Corp president and executive producer Bruce David Klein, also featured Leftfield Pictures president David George (pictured, center); Pilgrim Studios EVP of development and original programming Johnny Gould; APA VP of alternative and international television Marc Kamler and H2 VP of development and programming Mike Stiller (pictured, right).

George, who was recently promoted to president of Leftfield Pictures following ITV Studios’ acquisition of Leftfield Entertainment, explained that the company is in the process of refreshing its hit History franchise Pawn Stars with the spin-off game show Pawnography.

Neither Leftfield nor the network is known for game shows. “Pawn Stars for us is a brand,” he said. “At the end of the day the challenge is to keep reinventing the brand. This marks a good step in trying to reinvigorate the brand while it’s still healthy.”

Stiller told the panel about the challenges he faces programming for a network aimed at history buffs but in competition with general interest networks. As sister network History shifted its focus to entertainment-focused mega-docs and reality shows to attract new viewers, H2 was  conceived to serve the viewer who wants information before entertainment.

But the reality is H2 is in competition with every network so it must branch out itself. “Do we cannibalize the History audience? We don’t,” he said, adding there is cross-over in programming but H2 viewers ultimately like their TV “served in a different way.”

Pilgrim Studios is best known for male-skewing programming such as American Chopper and Dirty Jobs but has gradually branched out with programs such as My Fair Wedding for WE tv and Lindsay for OWN.

The company identified areas it wanted to move into – such as food or dating – and developed programs accordingly. “It was always targeted development,” he explained.

Proving a company has what it takes to switch from motorcycles to weddings can be tricky when networks tend to look at past experience when commissioning, but the genre transition can be made easier with the right producer in charge.

“It comes down to the showrunner,” said Kamler.

“Don’t wait for the network to tell you what they’re looking for,” added Linn. “Go after the things you’re most excited about and would want to watch on TV. Somebody is going to want it or some variation of it.”

Klein asked the panel if the branching out into general interest programming is leading to a sameness in reality TV. “Has reality hit a wall?”

“Corporations are getting tighter and it harder to make big swings. It economically only makes sense to develop things you can take to many places,” Linn responded. “We have to have the guts to put our jobs on the line and make big swings.”

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