For some time, cable networks have depended on reality shows to fulfill their original-programming dreams. But now that History and Bravo have become ratings powerhouses on the back of unscripted fare like "Pawn Stars" and the "Real Housewives" franchise, respectively, they want critical acclaim.
In hopes of creating the next "Mad Men," History, Bravo, E! Entertainment, BBC America and Hallmark Channel are among the cable networks trying their hand at scripted programming for the first time.
"Cable networks are anticipating reality falling out of trend and are making sure they have the pipeline to withstand the shift," said Noah Everist, associate director, media investments at Campbell Mithun.
Unlike AMC, which before "Mad Men" was known for airing classic movies, these networks have well-developed identities and strong portfolios of unscripted programs, movies and syndicated content that give them the opportunity to bankroll scripted shows.
If done well, scripted shows can have a halo effect that conveys a sense of status, said Rob Bochicchio, exec VP-chief media investment officer at ID Media. Reality shows, on the other hand, are criticized as being low-brow and perceived as a riskier place for branding.
"Scripted is more comforting for Fortune 500 advertisers," Mr. Bochiccio said.
The cachet of scripted programming makes it easier for networks to command premium advertising rates and higher carriage fees, said Adam Hanft, founder and CEO of Hanft Projects, the marketing and branding firm.
AMC, for example, reported a 15% jump in advertising revenue in its most recent fiscal quarter because of advertiser interest in series like "The Walking Dead" and "The Killing." It has also boosted affiliate fees by 10 cents to 40 cents a subscriber since "Mad Men" premiered in 2007, according to analyst estimates.
"AMC shifted the paradigm, and now everyone thinks they can do the same thing," Mr. Hanft said. "But it is incredibly difficult and unlikely any of these networks will have another "Mad Men.'"
It's even harder to keep creating hits.
For several years, FX had some of the hottest shows, starting with "The Shield" in 2002, followed by "Nip/Tuck" and "Rescue Me." But in 2006 it had a string of failures, including "Black. White" and "Thief."
Even AMC missed with "Rubicon." The network reported lower earnings in its most recent quarter partly because of a write-off for the canceled series.
"To find ideas that are executable within the framework of your model, you have to thread a fine needle," said Joel Stillerman, AMC's head of original programming. "Once you whittle those ideas down to the ones you truly love, you are left with few options."
And those options can be pricey. The reason most networks have relied so heavily on reality programming is because it is significantly cheaper to produce than scripted material.
Hallmark Channel has one of the interesting models. It is using two TV movies based on popular novels -- Debbie Macomber's "Cedar Grove" and Janette Oke's "When Calls the Heart" -- as springboards for series. The network is producing movie pilots that will air this year, with a full series rolling out in 2013.
Ms. Macomber's original movies, shown during the Christmas season, have performed well for the network, reaching nearly 3 million households and an average 3.0 rating over the past three holiday seasons.
"This is about as risk-free as you can be in the original scripted space," said William Abbott, CEO of Hallmark parent company Crown Media.
AMC entered that space two years before "Mad Men" with the miniseries "Broken Trail." Similarly, History will dip its toe in the water with "Hatfields & McCoys" this Memorial Day before jumping in with "Vikings" next year.
"Historical dramas on the small and big screen have been some of the most critically acclaimed," said Nancy Dubuc, president of the History and Lifestyle networks.
Ms. Dubuc believes "Vikings" will be a success because there's not much on TV involving warriors or that time period. In comparison, History's reality series "Pawn Stars" has spawned dozens of copycat programs.
"The commonality in reality programming has confused the consumer, forcing networks to look elsewhere for originality," said Lyle Schwartz, managing partner for marketplace analytics and implementation research at Group M.
But the cable networks are starting off slowly, airing one or two original scripted shows to test viewers' appetites. That means fewer pilots and less money wasted on programs that may never catch on.
While Bravo intends to shoot several pilots this year and have at least one original scripted show running in 2013, the network for the most part will remain a primarily unscripted channel, said Eli Lehrer, VP-development and original programming.
E! Entertainment also considers scripted programming a complement to its reality shows, celebrity news and comedic talk shows.
"We don't need it, but it's an additive," said Lisa Berger, president-entertainment programming at the network. "Since we already have a strong slate of programming, it gives us the luxury to take our time, be specific and find the right story to tell. We can be more selective."
AMC launched just one show a year in its infancy, said Christina Wayne, president of Cineflix Studios, which is working on BBC America's first original scripted series, "Copper." Ms. Wayne helped launch AMC's original scripted division. "This is the smart way to enter the original scripted space," she said. "You can't really start off doing five series at once."
AMC typically eyes two to three shows to air over five years, Ms. Wayne said. In contrast, HBO in any given year will develop about three pilots and air two.
Cable and digital players moving into original-scripted programming
Hallmark ChannelHallmark Channel will be using two TV movies based on popular novels as springboards for scripted series. The network is producing "movie pilot" versions of Debbie Macomber's "Cedar Cove" and Janette Oke's "When Calls the Heart" to air in the 2012-2013 season.
HistoryHistory, which has become one of the highest rated networks because of its success with reality programs such as "Pawn Stars" and "Ice Road Truckers," is entering the original-scripted business with "Vikings." The epic historical drama from Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios chronicles the world of medieval Norsemen and comes from "The Tudors" and "Elizabeth" writer Michael Hurst. The series received a full-season commitment from the network and is scheduled to air in 2013. But before this, History will dip its toe in the original-scripted space with the miniseries "Hatfields & McCoys," starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton, which debuts on Memorial Day.
BBC AmericaBBC America will air its first original-scripted series, "Copper," in August. Co-produced by Cineflix Studios and Shaw Media, "Copper" tells the story of Irish immigrants in Manhattan's Five Points neighborhood post-Civil War. Tom Weston-Jones of "MI-5" will star as an Irish-immigrant cop who is seeking the truth about his missing wife and dead daughter. BBC picked up 10 episodes of the series. This comes after the network, which has a history of airing only acquisitions from the U.K., premiered its first original-unscripted series, "Would You Rather with Graham Norton" and "No Kitchen Required." "Richard Hammond's Crash Course" also will air later this month.
E! EntertainmentE! Entertainment, which is known for its celebrity news and reality programming, tapped Kevin Plunkett as its first scripted executive in October 2011. In the newly created role of SVP of scripted programming, Mr. Plunkett oversees all aspects of E!'s scripted development, reporting to Lisa Berger, president of entertainment programming. E! has seven projects in development and will make announcements at its upfront at the end of the month.
BravoBravo hired Andrew Wang in March for the newly created position of VP of scripted development and production. Mr. Wang has experience in creating scripted TV series targeting young females, having worked on "Gossip Girl," "The Vampire Diaries" and "Pretty Little Liars" while at Alloy Entertainment. Bravo plans to have at least one original-scripted series on the air by 2013. The network is looking at several scripts, including "22 Birthdays," which revolves around a group of parents at an exclusive prep school and the lavish birthday parties they throw for their children; and "Blowing Sunshine," which is set in a private, upscale rehab center.
NetflixNetflix entered the original-scripted space in February with the series "Lilyhammer." This is its first test at original programming, as it prepares for "House of Cards," the Kevin Spacey drama expected to air by the end of the year. Netflix reportedly invested $100 million for 26 episodes of the series. The streaming-video provider also has picked up "Orange Is the New Black" and the horror series "Hemlock Grove."
HuluHulu launched its first original-scripted series, the political drama "Battleground," in February, and then followed up with the "mocumentary" series "Paul the Male Matchmaker."