Think You Could Launch A Network? These People Have, And They Share Why It’s So Hard, Even For Oprah.
No one is immune from the multitude of challenges that come with launching a new TV network. Not even Oprah Winfrey, whose struggles getting OWN up and running have been breathlessly detailed in the media over the past few months, or Al Gore, whose efforts to take Current into the big time hit a major roadblock with the ugly departure of Keith Olbermann.
So how does it work? What are the essential components needed to find a place in an ever-fractioning TV landscape? We spoke with some heavy hitters in the industry — network execs who have either built a successful network, are building one, or hope to build one — and got their insights.
Establish A Strong Brand Identity
Destination America, the rather drastic rebranding of the eco-minded Planet Green, launched May 24, looking to attract the 25-54 demographic by highlighting ordinary people who exemplify the American spirit. Marc Etkind, senior VP of content strategy, says it seeks to be “the first network about the people, places and stories in the United States. You might see American content on other networks, but we’re the first network to make that our core, our brand.”
Think “barbecue, hamburgers, roller coasters, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon” and Etkind says you’ll have a good idea of what to expect. “There are people out there with immense talent, and if they could just be discovered, they’d be stars, and we’re trying to give them a voice.”
Contrast this with OWN’s launch, which was heavily hyped but amounted to not much more than a diluted extension of Oprah’s life-affirming brand, featuring all-too familiar faces that were already available in plenty of other outlets. (Oh goodie, another hour a day with Gayle King.) Along with debating the quality of OWN’s programming, people were wondering just who was supposed to be watching it.
Offer Original Programming
Ted Linhart, senior vice president of research for USA Network, says original programming “defines” a network. He should know, since USA has been the top-rated cable network since 2006 thanks largely to its ever-growing stable of original shows like Monk, Psych, Burn Notice and the new hit Common Law.
“Original programming is what people still will go out of their way for, what the press will talk about,” he says. “It’s what excites people more often.”
When Michael Riley took over as president of ABC Family in 2010, he immediately put five original series into production, making by far the most aggressive move in the youth-oriented network’s history. “For me it was very much about saying, ‘OK, we have this wonderful brand, and a great environment. How do we really capitalize on that to really expand our content offering?’ That was a very big goal from the get-go,” he says.
Acquired programming is also an important building block, helping to fill the schedule while a network develops its lineup. In some cases, it can even establish a go-to template for future programming. Such was the case last year when the fledgling ReelzChannel found itself in a position to acquire the radioactive miniseries The Kennedys.
“What we learned is that really big, well-told, well-produced stories get an audience, and there’s an interest that goes beyond them,” says ReelzChannel CEO Stan Hubbard. This interest came in the form of several specials the network then produced surrounding the miniseries, including behind-the-scenes specials, biographies, countdown lists, Kennedys-themed episodes of its regular programming and more. It’s a pattern they’ve followed with subsequent acquisitions, most notably the Steven Seagal cop drama True Justice.
Dozens of factors contribute to a network’s success or failure — from cable system availability to the size of the marketing budget — so it’s crucial to understand the issues and constantly evaluate them. Don’t assume that because something worked once, it will work always.
“We don’t make rash judgments,” Linhart says. “You need to let something settle in. But we’re always evaluating. I don’t think we could’ve stayed No. 1 for six years without that. We really strategize all the time about what’s coming up next week, next month, next quarter, next year, two years [and] make sure that if we see signs of weakness, we fix it; signs of strength, we capitalize on it.”
In other words, don’t rest on your laurels. At ABC Family, being up to speed with the millennial audience one week doesn’t guarantee that’ll be the case the next week, a fact of which Riley is all too aware. “We know that millennials aren’t genre specific, so we’re really creating content across the board that they’re really fascinated by,” he says. “It goes back to this whole idea of understanding what they want — it’s not genre; it’s content created for them that has real and relatable characters.”
Know Your Audience
ABC Family takes the approach of not just being part of its audience’s viewing habits, but part of their lives. The network prides itself on being a social-media juggernaut, with the recent season finale of Pretty Little Liars being the most tweeted and Facebooked episode in television history — 850,000 tweets in a single day. While that doesn’t always translate directly into ratings, it’s an essential part of the network’s strategy, with Riley referring to social media as the millennials’ version of the water cooler. “It’s where they go to chat about all of these fantastic shows,” he says, “and so being a part of that really then engages them in the show and in the storylines and allows ABC Family as a brand to be part of the conversation.”
And being part of a conversation means accepting feedback, even when viewers are informing you of a mistake. One of Riley’s favorite illustrations of his network’s interaction with its audience comes from the website for its hit drama Switched at Birth, where a visitor pointed out an error in one of the site’s captioned videos.
“We made the change and we had a huge deluge of comments after that along the lines of, ‘Oh, ABC Family really listens,’ ‘They’re very responsive’ and ‘They understand what their fan base is looking for,’” he says. “Even though we made a mistake with what we were trying to do, correcting that mistake and moving on was part of engaging the community.”
At Destination America, the audience research began even as Planet Green was winding down. Etkind says the station began running programming that would fit the Destination America brand earlier this year, once the rebranding decision had been made. When ratings came back favorably, they knew they were on to something.
Don’t Look To The Stars For Guidance
Oprah’s frank assertion that OWN launched before it was ready was reflected in comments from many of the folks we talked to, who said they favored a much more gradual opening as opposed to a big splash, and that star power is no guarantee for success.
It’s telling, for instance, that one of OWN’s bright spots has been Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s, an original series that doesn’t feature Dr. Phil, Gayle King, Suze Orman, Rosie O’Donnell or any other Oprah acolyte, but instead a St. Louis family running their soul food restaurant.
It’s the kind of show that might fit in on Destination America, where Etkind says the strategy is to create homegrown stars by backing a small number of original series that hopefully develop audience loyalty as the network grows. Such an approach is a far cry from the media blitz that accompanied Planet Green, which never found steady momentum in its four years.
“I think the one lesson I learned from Planet Green is you have to launch a network slowly,” he says. “They went out there and tried to go from 0 to 60 very quickly. Our lesson from that, and we learned it with Investigation Discovery [which has been a success] is start small, start slowly, build an audience and make sure you’re serving your viewers.”
Hubbard over at ReelzChannel calls this the “basic blocking and tackling” that every network needs to do during its startup phase. “Everybody wants to start a network,” he says. “Having done it now, I say, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ But if you can do it carefully and thoughtfully and you can be more patient than you ever imagined possible, I think there’s always room for smart ideas that someone wants to bring to the table.”
Illustration: Nate Reysen