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A Big Bang For Modest Bucks

10/21/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

The N, the nighttime network for teens, was a little bit too successful creating a stir this summer with its mall tour featuring the young stars of its hit, Degrassi: The Next Generation.

So many fans showed up for the tour’s stop at a New Jersey shopping center that there was a frenzy reminiscent of Beatlemania. Several of the show’s actors had to be escorted out by police.

That wasn’t the only time something like that happened during the Degrassi tour, according to Sarah Tomassi Lindman, vice president of production and programming at The N, which splits channel time with daytime preschool network Noggin.

The N’s success with Degrassi is just one example of how midsized networks have effectively used original programming to carve out an identity, stand out in the overcrowded TV landscape and gain distribution.

Great American Country, the country-music video network, has had its victories as well. When it secured the rights to televise Grand Ole Opry Live!, it was able to parlay that coup into new carriage deals.

Midsized programming services with 50 million subscribers or less — such as The N, GAC, SoapNet and Style — face an uphill battle trying to generate water-cooler buzz and ratings. They don’t have small fortunes to spend on the creation and promotion of original programming.

So as they strive to get noticed and draw viewers, they must be savvier and more innovative in their programming strategies than TV’s big guns.

In part, they have to pick their shots carefully. GAC, Style and SoapNet are all making use of event programming — from awards ceremonies to fashion shows to red-carpet coverage — to drum up attention. In addition, GAC and SoapNet have made it their programming mandate to develop shows that offer viewers the inside skinny on country music and soap operas, respectively.

“Our goal is always to give the soap fans a deeper, richer experience of the genre,” SoapNet general manager Deborah Blackwell says. “We’re the place where they can go behind the scenes, where they can have inside access to the shows and the stars.”

MTV Networks’ The N, the program block spun off of Noggin, has a very targeted approach as well. “Having fewer resources means if we just spread them evenly across the channel, there wouldn’t be enough for anything,” Lindman says. “So we really decided to have a very specific focus on where we want to put our energies and really direct our audience.”

Most recently, The N — now in 44.7 million homes — has focused on scripted fare, such as dramas like Degrassi that depict real-life teen issues. It will soon add comedies to that mix.

In particular, it’s attempting to widen its audience by attracting more young men and older teen viewers, continuing to move beyond its original younger “tween” target audience, in part by setting shows outside of the high-school walls.

From the get-go, when the block launched in April 2002, The N was very calculated in its approach to original programming, using Home Box Office as a model.

“We decided rather than go out and try to fill our air with exclusively original programming, and try to do a lot of things for very little money, we would try to focus the money we had on producing a smaller slate of really creatively excellent and well-produced programming,” Lindman says.

Degrassi — a spinoff of a Canadian show that The N now co-produces with a company from north of the border — was on the teen service’s lineup from the very start.

“We thought at the time the show was great, but had no idea that it would become the phenomenon that it has,” Lindman says.

Now, The N is creating shows that complement Degrassi, as well as adding programming to expand the network’s audience. In July, The N launched Instant Star, abut a talent-show winner, as a companion to Degrassi. This summer, the two programs were the most watched shows among teens and teen girls on all of television — not just cable — in their respective time slots, according to Lindman.

The N’s expansive slate of new offerings includes South of Nowhere, about a family that relocates to Los Angeles from Ohio, which premieres Nov. 4.

In addition, The N recently green-lit two series, The Block and Whistler. Those two shows, as well as Makaha Surf, a new series about competitive teen girl surfers, will join The N’s schedule next year.

The N generated a 0.3 primetime rating in the third quarter, up 50% from last year, according to a Disney ABC Cable Networks analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

This year was the second time The N has done its Degrassi mall tours.

“It’s excellent grassroots marketing,” Lindman says. “We have a very passionate Degrassi audience. The actors on the show are not celebrities that you would find on ET [Entertainment Tonight] or the cover of People magazine, yet there’s a lot of pent-up curiosity about them with the audience. We can help build them into celebrities and help satisfy that itch that our audience has to know them as celebrities.”

SOAPNET’S STRATEGY

Meanwhile, SoapNet, which airs same-day episodes of popular daytime soaps such as All My Children and General Hospital, is taking an entirely different approach to original programming. To augment its repurposed fare, SoapNet’s strategy has been to offer its audience — soap fans — a behind-the-scenes view of the shows and their talent.

From its launch, the 43 million-home network included one piece of original programming, a show called Soap Center. But SoapNet took a new tack when it premiered Soap Talk in June 2002, which in its very first season earned four Emmy nominations.

While Soap Center went out on location to interview the genre’s actors, Soap Talk is a hosted, studio-based talk show, where celebrities stop by to be interviewed.

“We have this wonderful pool of amazing actors who have a strong, strong fan base, but don’t generally get booked on talk shows, with the exception of the most prominent, like Susan Lucci,” Blackwell says. “We knew the fans would really like to see these people in a casual environment, being interviewed so they can get to know them.”

To launch the show’s fourth season earlier this month, Soap Talk taped a week’s worth of shows in Hawaii, where Blackwell says hundreds of people showed up on the beach to be in the studio audience.

SoapNet, which averaged a 0.5 primetime rating in the third quarter, has also done its own spin on reality programming with I Wanna Be a Soap Star, where a dozen aspiring actors live together on a sound stage — which has sets of actual soap operas — and compete for a 13-week contract on a real soap. The program has been renewed for a third season.

I Wanna Be a Soap Star gives SoapNet “a chance to work with ABC Daytime and bring a lot of attention to their shows,” according to Blackwell.

SoapNet benefits as well. For example, as a prelude to I Wanna Be a Soap Star’s finale this year, ABC aired a one-hour special, which recapped the first eight I Wanna Be a Soap Star shows, in The View’s morning time slot.

“We’re in 43.7 million homes, half the country, so this drove awareness of SoapNet to fans who may not have us yet,” Blackwell says.

SoapNet has also created marquee programming with its red-carpet coverage, Live From the Daytime Emmys.

“The TV Academy has approached us about finding ways to have a bigger presence at the daytime Emmys, so we’re brainstorming about that,” Blackwell says.

In terms of attracting attention, SoapNet also gets a lot of mileage out of its specials, such as They Started on Soaps, which spotlights how some A-list celebrities broke into the business via the soaps. The franchise often gets a mention on shows like Entertainment Tonight, according to Blackwell.

“It’s great for driving awareness of SoapNet,” she says. “One of the big goals for us is just to let people know that we’re here. A show like this, which is so broad-skewing, is very effective for us in that way.”

SoapNet is also planning to produce some pilots next year, with an eye toward possibly airing original behind-the-scenes programming on weekends, according to Blackwell.

GAC’S ORIGINALS

Like SoapNet, the bulk of GAC’s programming — music videos — isn’t original. So in a strategy similar to SoapNet’s, GAC is using original programming to knit its schedule together and create an identity for the network. That effort has been kicked up a notch since 2004, when E.W. Scripps Co. purchased GAC, now in 39 million households.

“In going to some long-form programs around the videos, it just gives the viewers an added interest in watching them,” says Sarah Trahern, GAC’s vice president of programming.

In the way that SoapNet tries to super-serve soap-opera aficionados, GAC aims to do the same for country-music fans with its original programming. Country-music lovers “want to know everything they can possibly learn and know about a song, an artist, the writer, the lyrics,” according to Ed Hardy, GAC’s president.

GAC will introduce three new series this fall that put “a different spin” on videos, Trahern says.

For example, on My Music Mix artists will essentially program “a video iPod” for an hour, picking videos from performers they like. In Video Biography, an artist or group will focus on their videos, talking about their most recent one, or their favorite, and offering background about it, Trahern says.

GAC is also trying to get more mileage out of its Grand Ole Opry Live! franchise. The Saturday-night program, which moved to GAC from CMT: Country Music Television in 2003, is such an important marquee property that its addition to GAC’s lineup helped get the network carriage on DirecTV Inc. and with several big MSOs as well, according to Hardy. A DirecTV spokesman confirmed Hardy’s recollection.

GAC and The Opry — both of which are looking to expand their fan base — are working together on several projects, Trahern says. That collaboration includes GAC doing a five-part documentary, The Opry: Eight Decades of Great Country, to celebrate the Grand Ole Opry’s 80th anniversary, along with related programming throughout October.

Under Scripps, GAC has also added event and awards programming to its roster. This year, the network for the first time televised the Annual Americana Music Honors & Awards, and in June it aired the Academy of Country Music Awards, after it run on CBS in May.

In September, GAC televised a two-hour, commercial-free benefit concert to aid the Red Cross’s effort on behalf of Hurricane Katrina victims. The concert was simulcast on DIY and Fine Living, GAC’s sister networks.

THE PASSIONATE APPROACH

Style has taken a different approach. Its programming mission has been to appeal to women’s passions about “every category of style,” not to lecture them, according to CEO Ted Harbert. And the network’s about to become more aggressive on that front, as it premieres several new shows that address such topics as fashion and beauty in new ways.

“We are not a how-to network,” Harbert says. “We’re a storytelling network, and the information comes through the side door and sometimes the back door. You don’t watch a show because you’re sitting there hoping you’re going to write down all the tips you learn.”

According to Harbert, viewers watch to see how they can translate runway fashion — and Style does cover the fashion shows in Manhattan — into something that works in their lives. Style has a stable of popular shows, such as The Look for Less hosted by UPN’s America’s Next Top Model winner Yoanna House, which accomplish that goal and have taken off with audiences, he says.

Unlike other midsized networks, Style produces hundreds of hours of original programming a year. “That sets us apart from our peers,” Harbert says.

The network, which is in 41.3 million homes, will premiere two new shows in December. Isaac features designer Isaac Mizrahi, who does an apparel line for mass retailer Target, as the host of a studio-based show. It will air daily at 7 p.m.

“We have very high hopes that our female audience will just fall in love with him,” Harbert says. “Our research shows that our friends at Target have already done an amazing job getting him to be a real favorite of women.”

In Style’s second new show, Try My Life, two people switch places and lives for a week.

Both shows are a departure for Style. With Isaac, Style is “banking, frankly, more on his personality than on the format,” while Try My Life “digs deeper into the relationship world,” according to Harbert.

Style’s strategy has succeeded in terms of the quantity and the quality of the audience it attracts. The network ended the third quarter with a 100% increase in women viewers 35 to 44 from a year ago.

In primetime in the third quarter, Style posted a 0.2 rating. And its concentration of affluent women in a number of female demographics is among the very highest in cable.

“We’re a branded network and we’re very focused, but we’re focused on a big audience, which suggests to me that we have so much growth potential,” Harbert says.

 

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