Should Cable Nets Stick With What They Know?

AMC Ends Most Unscripted Shows, While USA's Comedy Push Slows

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'Game of Arms.'
'Game of Arms.' Credit: AMC

Cable networks that established themselves with niche programming aimed at very specific audiences have been branching out in recent years to chase broader audiences and advertiser pools. E!, best known for "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," is trying its hand at scripted series, as is sibling channel Bravo, home of the "Housewives" franchise. TNT, the home of original dramas like "The Last Ship" and "Legends," now airs a cooking competition series.

But at least some are finding it might have been better to stick with the genre they came in with, lest they dilute their brands and lose focus on the programming they do best.

"Cable has broadened out so much, but now there's a realization that there a need to tighten back up," said Brent Poer, president at Starcom MediaVest Group's LiquidThread North America. "In a way we are going backwards. We went through a period of wanting to attract the biggest audience possible, but that's diluted some brands."

As content moves across platforms and services, there's an even stronger need for brands to mean something, Mr. Poer said. Networks need to make sure their content is recognizably their own even when it appears on services like Netflix instead of the regular TV channel.

Now at least two top cable channels – AMC and USA – are starting to rethink their approach to genres outside of their comfort zone.

AMC is abandoning nearly all of its reality series to refocus on building its portfolio of scripted shows. While it isn't a total shutdown of its unscripted programming -- both "Talking Dead" and "Comic Book Men" will continue on the network -- AMC is scrapping "Small Town Security," "Freakshow" and the recently renewed "Game of Arms," a show about the arm wrestling circuit. All unscripted programming that was in development has also been canned.

The network had previously made one programming shift to great effect, changing from a channel focused on "American Movie Classics" to a home for dark, critically-acclaimed dramas like "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad." But the move into unscripted may have been a pivot too far.

"Scripted originals are at the core of the AMC brand," an AMC spokesman said via email. "Iconic shows like 'Mad Men,' 'Breaking Bad' and 'The Walking Dead,' have driven AMC's evolution into a must-have TV network. We are proud of our efforts in unscripted programming and the unique worlds we have been able to introduce, but in an environment of exploding content options for viewers, we have decided to make scripted programming our priority."

The spokesman declined to make executives available to discuss the shift in strategy.

AMC's move comes as its stock of scripted dramas is waning. While it boasts the most-watched show among adults 18-to-49 in "The Walking Dead," it is entering the final chapter of "Mad Men" and hasn't found another breakout hit akin to "Breaking Bad."

Ratings for AMC's reality shows, however, have been lackluster. "Game of Arms" averaged 747,000 viewers in season one, with 450,000 of those in the 18-to-49 demographic. That's a far cry from "The Walking Dead," which returned for season 5 to more than 17 million total viewers, and even the network's less buzzy scripted series, such as "Halt and Catch Fire," pull more than 1 million viewers.

And when it comes to advertising, AMC's scripted series have been more appealing, garnering a higher price than reality shows, according to a person familiar with the matter.

USA's push to supplement its dramas with comedy, meanwhile, is slowing down: The network has decided to not move forward with any of the comedy scripts it was considering. USA will remain committed to existing comedy series "Benched" and "Sirens" as well as the reality series "Chrisley Knows Best," though there's been no word on whether it will renew "Playing House."

"We are incredibly excited about our new drama development, and we want to make sure there is enough room on the schedule in 2015 to launch what looks to be our strongest slate yet," Chris McCumber, president, USA Network, said via email.

USA introduced comedies last year as a companion to reruns of "Modern Family." It was the first time the network aired an original half-hour comedy series in more than a decade.

"Sirens," which has been renewed for a second season, averaged 1.6 million viewers and 870,000 adults 18-to-49 in its first season. "Benched" will premiere later this month."Chrisley" returned for season two this week to 1.6 million total viewers.

For USA, introducing comedy was a way to lower the median age of its audience and draw new viewers to the channel, said Sam Armando, senior VP-director of strategic intelligence, at Publicis Groupe's SMGx. At the time USA started exploring comedy, the network had been struggling to find a critical success akin to other networks like AMC and FX, he added. Since then, USA has built up its pipeline with some darker, high-profile, riskier dramas, like the upcoming six-part miniseries "Dig"; pilots like "Stanistan," set in the Middle East; and "Colony," about an alien invasion.

TNT is another network that has treaded into a new genre with little success. The Turner-owned network made its first foray into reality with "The Great Escape" in 2012. That aired for just one season. TNT followed that up with shows like "The Hero" starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, which was also quickly canceled. The network's latest attempt in the genre is the cooking competition series, "On The Menu," with chef Emeril Lagasse and hosted by Ty Pennington, which bowed earlier in the month.

"We always applaud networks trying new stuff to bring in viewers, but viewers may not respond to the new direction and it's hard to tell if it's the genre or they just didn't respond to that specific program," said David Campanelli, senior VP-director of national broadcast, Horizon Media.

History has quite possibly had the biggest success in moving into new genres of programming, adding scripted miniseries to its slate in 2012 with "Hatfields and McCoys" and following that up with its first original scripted drama, "Vikings," in 2013. Its season-two finale averaged 3.4 million viewers, including 1.4 million in the 18-to-49 demographic, and the show is returning for a third season.

Moving beyond non-fiction and reality programming like "Pawn Stars" and "Ice Road Truckers" has allowed History to bring down its median age and grow its overall audience, all while continuing to target the core male audience advertisers typically buy the channel to reach, Mr. Campanelli said.

"Networks can only grow audiences so much in their niche, then they have to branch out in order to continue to grow. They have to do that to evolve the brand," Mr. Campanelli said.

There was once a stigma among buyers and annoyance by pay-TV providers when cable networks changed course. (Time Warner Cable famously forced Ovation to go back to focusing on the arts in order to regain carriage.) But given the influx of competition, advertisers are more understanding of the necessity for networks to expand their programming to attract new audiences.

It just can't leave a network undifferentiated.

"Cable was built as defined brands, but if you look like everyone else, why should an advertiser buy you?" Mr. Poer said. Ultimately, networks that become so broad that they lose their niche audience become beholden to ratings rather than the potentially attractive subset of viewers that may be small, but hard to find elsewhere, he added.

"It's a tricky balance to grow the audience and stay true to who you are," Mr. Campanelli said. "If growth means losing your uniqueness or the reason why we buy the channel it could be a problem."

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