Cable stations think outside the TV box

The Baltimore Sun

A few years ago, it looked like Court TV was all about courtrooms, FX Network was for tough guys, and AMC ran only movies. In the coming months, however, cable TV viewers will start to see things change.

Court TV has just become TruTV. FX ads will explain "There is no box" that its shows fit into. And AMC will launch its third original scripted program.

As cable TV has exploded into hundreds of channels, networks must grow increasingly sophisticated to stand out amid the competition and maintain their double-digit annual growth. Some, such as Court TV, have relied as much on psychographics as demographics to figure out who their audience is and how to reach potential viewers. FX spent tens of millions of dollars to roll out its ad campaign for the new tag line.

The idea, said John Landgraf, president and general manager of FX Networks, is to create a "sense of brand, not only shows."

But it takes a long time to build a brand name, and cable networks, whose shows are less expensive than broadcast networks, are used to moving fast, according to Derek Bane, a senior analyst at SNL Kagan, a television research firm. "I don't know how much weight tag-line branding has," he said. "People look for good programming. A lot of it is good advertising and good word of mouth."

Further complicating the new branding efforts is the uncertainty of programming because of the current writers' strike.

Here's a sampling of what viewers can expect on basic cable this year:


AMC once called itself "Television for People Who Love Movies." Now it's "The Future of Classic."

"What we're looking to do is combine the best movies with high-end scripted originals," said general manager and executive vice president Charlie Collier.

The movie channel tested the waters for original programming with Broken Trail, an Emmy-winning miniseries, and last summer's Mad Men, a Golden Globe-nominated drama. On Jan. 20, the network will launch Breaking Bad, a series about a "repressed everyman" diagnosed with a fatal illness, Collier said.

Collier said he'd like AMC, like HBO, to be "creator-friendly," a network where writers can bring smart projects they're passionate about and know they will be produced in a high-quality, cinematic way. "We're working with a lot of Hollywood talent," he said.


The new spots for FX announcing its tag line "There is no box," will tell you what it is not. Rescue Me isn't about heroes, and Damages isn't about law, or order.

With a schedule that now appeals to older and younger men and women, Landgraf said FX was ready to be branded: The viewers are "united by a common psychographic," he said. "This sense of cliche-defying, boundary-busting originality."

Upcoming pilots include Pretty Handsome, a series starring Joseph Fiennes, Carrie-Anne Moss, Blythe Danner and Robert Wagner, and Sons of Anarchy by Kurt Sutter and Art and John Linson.

Landgraf is eager for the writers' strike to end. New seasons of Damages and Rescue Me have been ordered, and only half-seasons of Dirt and The Riches have been completed. The 14 completed episodes of Nip/Tuck will run through February, he said.


With a 31 percent increase in its programming budget this year, Lifetime Television, the leader in women's TV, had commissioned enough movie scripts to be in production by strike time, said Susanne Daniels, the president of entertainment in charge of both Lifetime Television and Lifetime Movie Network.

She said close to 20 movies are in various stages of development, including Queen Sized on Jan. 12 and Racing for Time on Feb. 16. Memory Keeper's Daughter, starring Dermot Mulroney and Emily Watson, will air later in the year.

Daniels said Lifetime, much parodied for its "Television for Women" tag line and cliche-ridden story lines, will be moving away from programs about women in peril and more toward comedies, action and reality programs, such as How to Look Good Naked, hosted by Carson Kressley on Friday.


Today, CourtTV will become TruTV. The tag line "Not reality. Actuality" means the network will continue broadening its reality programming beyond the courtroom to attract "real engagers." "This is life coming at you in real terms," said Steve Koonin, the president of Turner Entertainment Networks. "All our shows will have a first-person narrative."

The switch came about after some sophisticated and expensive research into the psychographics of the network's viewers.

"Court TV has had two audiences," Koonin said. "The small but passionate daytime audience that tuned in for the court proceedings. At night, in prime time, we had younger men watching the action programming and women watching the mystery-solving programming. We are going to skew more male and more younger by bringing 'real engager' programming."

While live footage from trials will continue to air during the day, unscripted shows such as Beach Patrol and Speeders will take over at night.

Today, Ocean Force will launch a series on the lifeguards of Huntington Beach, Calif. Also this month, The Real Hustle will use a hidden camera to show how vulnerable people are to real cons and scams. Black Gold will feature dueling oil prospectors.

Lynn Smith writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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