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Cable Wins Big With Broadcast Castoffs

2/24/2006 7:00 PM Eastern

It appears that broadcast’s loss is becoming cable’s gain.

In recent years, cable has been looking to a number of broadcast castoffs in hopes of luring audiences and ratings wins.

ESPN is hedging its bets when it debuts the sophomore season of the reality boxing series The Contender on July 18, which aired on NBC last year. It also grabbed Monday Night Football when it was cut loose from ABC, which had been losing $150 million per year with the franchise. ESPN, which is 80% owned by ABC, will pay $1.1 billion a year for the Monday-night package. With its subscriber fees and revenue streams through various properties including ESPN Radio, ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine, the sports network is better able to absorb those fees.

ABC also gave up the 85-year-old Miss America Pageant, which aired on CMT: Country Music Television in January, posting a record rating for the network, and VH1 has scored annually with The Surreal Life since acquiring the series from The WB in 2004.

E! Entertainment Television, which reportedly beat out VH1 for Fox’s The Simple Life, is looking for similar success. The show, produced in association with 20th Century Fox Television, was allowed to be shopped to other channels after network said it didn’t have room on its schedule this season to accommodate the series. While E! declined to comment on the price of the acquisition, reports say that the price for the new episodes is on par with the $800,000 per episode Fox was paying.

“This represents a change in the way E! does business,” said E! CEO Ted Harbert. The network also acquired the library of all 36 past episodes of Simple Life, which will begin running this spring. “I got great support from management to step up the programming budget and aggressively go after those properties that will show that E! is getting more serious about programming and that we’re not just going to rely on the same franchises we have over the past years.”

VH1 executive vice president of original programming and production Michael Hirschorn said, “The economics of cable at the moment make it imperative that we take chances and creative risks to stand out from the clutter.”

His network, which took over production of The Surreal Life in its third season, continues to see audience growth as it gears up for season six. But it has been more than a ratings asset for the channel. Primetime viewership in the 18-49 demo has more than quadrupled from 272,000 in season three to 979,000 in its fifth season.

The Surreal Life really allowed us to build out the reality blocks on Sundays,” Hirschorn said. “The other thing that it’s done is actually create a kind of cottage industry of spin-offs,” he said, noting other reality originals that have done well throughout their schedule: Strange Love, Flavor of Love and My Fair Brady, which is in its second season. “So it’s been a kind of gift that keeps on giving.”

And broadcasters have given the best gift of all — shelling out the millions of dollars in upfront promotional costs and providing a built-in audience that, for niche cable channels, offers a better fit for the target audience, said Brad Adgate, senior vice president and director of research for Horizon Media.

“They can bring in something within the core viewership of their network like The Surreal Life or The Simple Life, a program that may bring in additional viewers to the network from broadcast TV,” Adgate said. “It’s just a matter of trying to increase their viewers a little bit from something that is a pre-sell in terms of what viewers know. And these are shows that aren’t very expensive to produce, and you can get away with that more on cable than you can on broadcast TV. And they can run it over and over again, which you can’t do on broadcast TV.”

Paul Villadolid, CMT vice president of programming and development, said, “There was a review in The Washington Post which said that the Miss America Pageant and CMT are perfect because this is heartland programming for a heartland network.”

While the number of people who tuned in to CMTs pageant telecast was significantly smaller than it ever had been on broadcast, the 3.1 million people who saw Miss Oklahoma Jennifer Berry win the crown marked the most-watched single broadcast in the channel’s history. “It is comfort-food programming that our audience is very familiar with,” Villadolid said.

Of course, there’s the added bonus of attracting viewers not ordinarily on a cable channel’s radar.

“We’ve found that there is a female demographic that really responds to The Contender,” said Ron Wechsler, senior director of development for ESPN. “Perhaps not in ways that were significant enough for NBC’s audience,” he said. “But certainly if we could latch onto the women that watch that show and have them come sample ESPN, that’s a winning situation for us.”

September