Once the landing pad for broadcast network also-rans, cable networks are churning out original programming in droves-attracting advertisers and building their brands based on original successes. "Sometimes the net effect of original programming helps increase acceptance of off-network repeats. It gives the networks cachet and a theme that helps brand it," says John Rash, senior VP-director of broadcast negotiation at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Campbell Mithun.
The quickest route to establishing a network's brand may be with one great hit-think about what "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" did for Bravo or "The Shield" did for FX.
"An original series can give you a lightning rod for all constituents: advertisers, cable operators and audience," says Jeff Gaspin, president of NBC Universal cable entertainment and cross-platform strategy.
A cable programming pioneer, Mr. Gaspin during a former stint at VH1 gave the green light to such channel-defining programming as "Behind the Music." At NBC Universal's cable net, his credits include Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." More so than acquisitions, originals create buzz through press coverage and awards.
John Landgraf, president-general manager of FX, knows that well. With Emmys for such dramas as "The Shield" and "Rescue Me," the network succeeded where critics said it couldn't: It carved out a brand based on edgy shows. "Our programming has revolutionized the channel," he says. "It's made the channel an appointment destination." He says 70% of FX's audience comes from elsewhere, either another network or they turn on the TV, just for the show.
GRITTY REALISM CITED
"No other show has dealt with police brutality the way `The Shield' does," he says. "No show's dealt with narcissism and grim obsessions of self-image that `Nip/Tuck' does. `Over There' [a new Steven Bochco Productions series about an army unit in Iraq] will be the first show to be done about a war while we're fighting" it.
This year, FX is pitching advertisers to integrate into original shows-including "Over There" and a six-episode documentary from "Super Size Me" director Morgan Spurlock.
TNT is launching two new dramas-"The Closer," starring Kyra Sedgewick, and "Wanted," starring Gary Cole. This summer it airs "Into the West," a big-budget miniseries produced by Steven Spielberg. Lifetime is upping its originals by 33%, offering up its first miniseries and a movie starring Mira Sorvino and Donald Sutherland. ABC Family is introducing its first original fare this summer with two movies and four series, including a reality show starring Venus and Serena Williams.
Media buyer buzz during the upfront centered on a few favorites to be breakout hits, including TNT's new drama "The Closer," SciFi's "Ghosthunters" reality show, and USA Networks' "Kojak." Another show with hit potential is "The Colbert Report," a Comedy Central spinoff from "The Daily Show." Starring Stephen Colbert, the satirical news show could begin in September.
Networks are responding to the pressure to produce hit series. When Mark Lazarus, president of Turner Entertainment Group, and his team at Turner decided to add another original recurring drama to TNT, they figured they'd commission 10 scripts, make three pilots and run one series. In the end, they chose two series they liked-"The Closer" and "Wanted."
"Creating a slate of original programming for both TBS and TNT has given us another avenue to have really good dialogue with the marketing community," says Mr. Lazarus, "We got to them many times a year with different strategies and ways that we can help them."
Audi is sponsoring the June 13 premiere of "The Closer." Meanwhile, TwinLab sponsored E!'s "Dr. 90210" and Hallmark Channel last year sold 12 single-sponsored limited commercial movie deals. Hallmark Exec VP-National Ad Sales Bill Abbott says ratings for those shows jumped an average of 32% over a typical original movie.
If it's original programming a network has more freedom to bring in a marketer and work them into the plot or offer them a sponsorship role, says Mike Lotito, founder-CEO of Media IQ, which measures clutter on TV. "When you have an off-network acquisition, you can't reshoot the show, all you can do is run fewer commercials or run a single sponsor," he says. But "that doesn't work with a 22-minute off-network sitcom."
When it makes sense, networks are also open to organic product placement and integrated deals. This year Anheuser-Busch has signed a sponsorship and exclusive deal with FX to have its brand integrated into the FX-scripted comedy "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," which takes place in a bar.
A more subtle tack: Sundance Channel is co-producing with Grey Goose Entertainment a documentary series called "Iconoclasts."
Sundance went to Bacardi's Grey Goose vodka brand executives with the idea of creating a production division that would share both costs and credits for the series and fulfill Grey Goose's marketing mandate of aligning itself with "cool" brands.
Cable networks have learned that one home run is better than a number of singles so they are snagging big stars and edgy fare, all in a battle to generate buzz.