How Do Independent Networks Stand Apart in Today’s TV Environment?
During the cable portion of the TV Critics Association tour in Los Angeles last week, TV shows of all kinds – big budget shows with superstars, documentary series on social issues, visually stunning dramas and more – were given a first look by critics. While many people spend hours watching HBO’s grand dramas or sports on ESPN, the big takeaway is that there is now a variety of network programming for everyone, regardless of age, special interests or background. In 2015 alone, networks large and small invested over $35 billion in programming to meet the varied interests of consumers everywhere.
At the TCA tour, we talked with a few executives from two niche, independent networks to learn more about how they build a network, how they attract audiences and what they are looking forward to in the next few years amid the rapidly changing TV business.
Building Strong Brands and Audiences
With so much on TV to watch, it is paramount that networks differentiate themselves and provide a clear vision of how their programming would appeal to audiences.
Pop started building their network two years ago, taking over the former TV Guide Network when it transformed operations. The network trademarked the term “modern grownup” to describe their target audience as they built a new brand entirely from scratch. Research showed that people were staying younger longer, spending more time and money on entertainment, and embracing pop culture – and thus, the modern grownup was born.
“Every cable business is trying to follow the AMC playbook with high-end drama. We thought, what if we did comedy, because on cable there isn’t a lot of scripted comedy. We really found that as a way to differentiate ourselves,” said Brad Schwartz, president of Pop. The network bet on a co-production (with Canadian broadcaster CTV) of a show called Schitt’s Creek with familiar faces like Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara to test their plan. Going into the show’s third season, it is Pop’s biggest show in 10 years.
Ovation panel on Versailles at the TCA tour included (from left to right) Scott Woodward, executive vice president of programming; George Blagden, cast member; Alexander Vlahos, cast member; and David Wolstencroft, executive producer.
While not a new network, Ovation looks to those who are passionate about the arts in all its forms. Ovation is an independent network that premiered in 1996 and relaunched in 2007 with a national audience, and the only network devoted entirely to the arts. Programming on the network includes movies and series about everything from dance to fashion to music and more.
“Everyone in some way, some shape or form is attached to the arts. Someone is doing something artistic. That gives us the latitude to and luxury to tap into a lot of different arenas since art is everything,” said John Malkin, executive vice president of content distribution at Ovation.
For new programming, Ovation has recently found emerging artists on YouTube for the creation of a new series. The network has also looked at productions from Europe, where Ovation’s upcoming show, Versailles, hails – a show even filmed on-site at the palace.
Thriving in a Changing TV Business
“TV is moving at the speed of light exponentially. So it is not just about sticking it on the tube and walking away,” said Malkin.
It is no surprise that consumers’ changing TV viewing habits are altering how networks engage with viewers. Networks today offer a variety of ways to view their programming. And distributors still play an important role in connecting viewers with content consumers cannot find anywhere else.
“When we license (a show) we are looking for the ability to stream, catchup, to put it on VOD. Not only for us but for all our affiliates. It is an important way to view our shows,” said Scott Woodward, executive vice president of programming and production at Ovation. And in the fall Ovation will unveil their first app for viewing programming that includes TV Everywhere authentication.
“As an emerging network we believe our future is in the hands of the distributors so we want our relationship with the viewers to be through there. If you want to binge, we want you to binge through the distributors. We put all of our content up through on demand,” said Schwartz.
While being a newer network can have some challenges, Pop is viewing its “new kid on the block” position somewhat differently. The network does not have to adapt an existing brand and content to an evolving marketplace, but instead can build the network and grow with it. Schwartz added, “We get to grow with Netflix, and along with Comcast X1 platform, and along with apps and everything else that is building.”
In the next few years, Ovation will continue to look for more scripted content, but always with a deep hook in the arts. “Versailles is a step forward. We are looking for more content to produce,” Woodward shared.
“It’s such a competitive time and only the strongest will survive. How do we get bigger faster? You cannot grow a cable business like you used to. We can’t wait 15 years. How do we get bigger faster – that’s the big challenge. I want to be one of the biggest networks on television. That is our goal,” said Schwartz.
Photo header left to right of Pop President Brad Schwartz, Wolf Creek Executive Producer Greg McLean, and Wolf Creek cast members Lucy Fry and John Jarratt.