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Making Movies Count

6/22/2010 10:57 AM Eastern

Asked to name the most-watched
scripted program in cable
history, most viewers would
probably point to an episode
from one of cable’s biggest series,
such as TNT’s The Closer or
USA Network’s Burn Notice.

Neither series comes close. In
fact, it’s not a scripted series at all
at the top of the chart, but rather a
scripted original movie — Disney
Channel’s 2007 High School Musical
2
, which drew more than 18
million viewers — that reigns supreme
among all cable shows.

Despite the genre’s success,
few cable networks
are developing original
films today. Though they were a
lineup staple from the late ’90s to
the mid-2000s, many basic-cable
networks have drawn the curtain
on big-event telepics. Such
films draw a significant amount
of viewers to networks when they
premiere, but mostly fail in luring
viewers back to the channel
on a consistent basis. By contrast,
scripted series encourage watchers
to come back for more.

Networks like Hallmark Channel,
Lifetime, ABC Family and
Syfy, however, are still rolling
film on original movies. And
while the big, standalone event
lives on, networks are also creating
theme films around a specific
genre, like horror, or a holiday
season, like Christmas or Valentine’s
Day. They’re also building
film franchises around fictional
characters or specific actors, in a
bid to match scripted series’ appointment-
viewing appeal.

Syfy has been successful in using
its Saturday-night lineup of creature
feature-esque and horror films
to strike a chord with its core 25-to-
54-year-old viewers, said executive
vice president of programming and
original movies Thomas Vitale. The
Saturday-night movie franchise,
featuring such outlandish movie
titles as Stonehenge Apocalypse,
Mega Piranha and Sharktopus, are
averaging 1.9 million viewers for
the first five months of 2010, nearly
double the network’s 1.1 million
first quarter prime time average,
according to Vitale.

Syfy expects to develop 24 originals
this year.

“The common wisdom is that
people aren’t watching movies
on television, but people are still
looking for new product and new
forms of entertainment, and original
movies provide that,” said Vitale.

Along with its holiday and
event-themed movies, Hallmark
Channel is building several film
franchises around such as The
Good Witch
, starring Army Wives’
Catherine Bell, and more recently
the Mrs. Miracle Christmas holiday
franchise starring Doris Roberts
[Everybody Loves Raymond].
Those offerings have helped the
network lure back viewers.

“What we are doing is offering
recurring characters in our movies,”
senior vice president of programming
Barbara Fisher said.
“When we find that audiences are
connecting with a character, we
do another one.”

ABC Family has taken the original
movie/scripted series model
even further by actually creating
a scripted series based on two
actors that appeared in one of its
original films. Veteran television
series actors Melissa Joan Hart
and Joey Lawrence will star this
summer in ABC Family’s scripted
comedy Melissa & Joey after
appearing in the network’s successful
2009 romantic comedy
My Fake Fiancé, which drew 3.9
million viewers.

“Melissa and Joey resonated
with our viewers in a big way, so
putting them together in a comedy
series made perfect sense
for us,” said Kate Juergens, executive
vice president of original
programming and development
for ABC Family, which is expected
to deliver eight to10 original
films in 2010. “Alternately, if it
makes sense to cast one of series
regulars in one of our upcoming
movies, we look at that as an opportunity
to make an impact with
our audience and build viewer
loyalty, as well.”

While these networks are having
some success with original films,
most of the major cable networks
have abandoned a category that
was hot on cable just a decade ago.

Cable’s top networks such as FX,
TNT, TBS, USA Network, BET, ESPN
and AMC were all offering original
films through the early part of the
2000s as a way of capturing new audiences
and differentiating its lineup
from mostly acquired fare from
the broadcast networks.

Other networks, such as Lifetime,
Hallmark Channel and ABC
Family offered dozens of movies
each year which appealed to their
target audiences. Lifetime’s female-
driven, dramatically-themed
original films in the early 2000s
helped make the network the most
watched among all ad-supported
services in 2001 and 2002.

“Movies have always been the
staple of Lifetime,” said Tanya Lopez,
senior vice president of original
movies for Lifetime Networks.
Lifetime will offer 10 to 12 telepics
in 2010, while sister service Lifetime
Movie Network will premiere
12 to 14 new originals.

“The Lifetime brand that became
iconic for our women viewers
has always been about movies
—if you ask someone about Lifetime,
more often than not, you’re
going to get ‘I love the Lifetime
movies’ even as we’ve pushed
ahead with scripted content like
Army Wives
to create another
place and another format for
women to watch,” she said.

With limited budgets for original
programming, an original
film — which costs anywhere
from $1.5 million to $3 million to
make — served as a perfect vehicle
for networks looking to build
brand awareness with consumers
through unique original fare.

Movies also proved to be major
ratings winners for the networks.
TNT’s western-themed Crossfire
Trail
in 2001 and USA’s Moby Dick
in 1998 at the time were among
the most watched programs ever
on cable, each generating over 10
million viewers.

“Turner has a long and very
successful history in the television
movie business — several of
TNT’s movies and miniseries set
ratings records, garnering significant
critical acclaim and awards
along the way, and we’re proud of
all of them,” said Michael Wright,
executive vice president and head
of programming for TBS, TNT
and Turner Classic Movies.

For kids-targeted Disney
Channel, the 2007 megahit
High School Musical 2
remains the most watched nonsports
show in cable history, having
garnered 18 million viewers
and leading Disney to the basiccable
ratings crown that year.

High School Musical was the
perfect storm for us and the category
— music is an absolute lightning
rod for our audience, and was
a genre that lay dormant on television
for a long time,”said Gary Marsh, president of entertainment and Chief Creative Officer for Disney Channels Worldwide. “We believed that
if we were able to deliver the right
story with the right music and the
perfect cast we could clearly create
a firestorm from an original movie
perspective.”

A strong, well-promoted original film that speaks to a network’s
brand has always provided an opportunity
for programmers to attract
new viewers as well as serve its
core audience, Syfy’s Vitale added.

“Movies are always a way to get
new viewers to sample your network
that might not have sampled
before,” he said. “With movies, we
get the regular viewers to come
back and you also get general viewers
to tune in.”

By the latter half of the 2000s,
the emergence of scripted series
began to challenge the viability
of original movies. While more
expensive to produce — scripted
series cost an average of $1.5 million
to $2 million per episode — a
series provided networks with a
greater return, because it provided
the opportunity to build greater
audience loyalty and return viewership
by providing a weekly offering
of new original programming
better than the monthly or quarterly
scheduled two-hour movie.

It also allowed networks to lock
in advertisers for a long-term series
run rather than a one-time,
big event movie.

A successful, long-running
scripted series also has a
greater chance of generating
incremental revenue in secondary
markets such as domestic
and international sales than
a stand-alone movie, which has
a relatively limited aftermarket
life, beyond repeat network runs
and DVD sales.

USA president Bonnie Hammer
— whose channel will offer seven
original scripted series in 2010,
but no original films — said that it
costs about as much to market an
original film as it does a scripted
series, with no promise that viewers
will return on a weekly basis.

“Financially, it was so much
more expensive to do one movie,
even if it repeated well, because
the marketing costs against it
didn’t make fi nancial sense,” she
said. “If you’re going to put that
much marketing behind a project,
you wanted the halo effect of
the marketing build to keep viewers
coming back week to week.”

After offering several Johnson
& Johnson
-sponsored original
movies in recent years, TNT
has also abandoned the original
movie genre and instead is concentrating
its resources on original
scripted series such as The
Closer
and freshman summer series
Memphis Beat.

“Unfortunately, the economics of
the television business have made
them a much more difficult business
proposition for us, and as our
original series have taken hold and
performed so well on the network,
television movies just haven’t made
as much sense for us,” Wright said.

Undaunted, several cable networks
have stayed with the original
movie genre and have carved
out a very successful niche. For
Hallmark Channel, the original
movies model works better financially
than creating original scripted
series, although Hallmark’s
Fisher says the network will explore
the fictional series genre in
the near future. “Original series
are very expensive, so it’s more
cost effective for us to do original
movies than series,” Fisher said.

Networks like ABC Family, Lifetime
and Disney Channel have
found a nice balance between offering
both scripted series and
movies. Original series provide
the network with consistent,
weekly content to fill its programming
lineups, while the big event
original movies provide opportunities
to draw in new viewers.

Disney’s Marsh added the network’s
six yearly original movies
provide an opportunity to promote
its tween-targeted scripted fare to a
large audience that may not be familiar
with the network’s content
as well as to Disney’s avid viewers.

“Our movies do so much lifting
for us beyond ratings — they create
other opportunities both financially
and brand-wise,” he said.
“They’re probably one of the biggest
brand drivers we have.”

 

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