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Hot & Happening: Breakout Networks

ABC Family

Summer Wins

After Disney struggled for four years to figure out what ABC Family should be, new President Paul Lee walked in and homed in on 18- to 34-year-olds, whether parents or not. That was the magic touch.

To maximize exposure, the network opted to premiere its first two youthful dramas, Wildfire and Beautiful People, during the summer. “This network really jumps in the summer when everyone is out of school,” says Lee, formerly president of BBC America. The strategy paid off, with Wildfire averaging 1.9 million viewers and Beautiful People attracting 1.2 million, above the network's prime time average. Up next: The annual 25 Days of Christmas. Long-range, Lee wants four scripted series a year: “We've proven we can 'break out' some new faces.”—Allison Romano

Sci Fi

The Hot Genre

Science fiction is all over broadcast TV this fall. Bonnie Hammer, president of Sci Fi and USA networks, is way ahead of the curve. She says her network spawned the “awareness that sci-fi is beyond just quirky space dramas. It is broad entertainment you can produce with a sci-fi twist and with just as much eye candy as you can in theatrical movies.”

Sci Fi now owns Friday nights on cable, and its overall ratings rival those of general-entertainment cable channels.

There's more to come. Series Eureka has been greenlighted, and several pilots are in development, including the promising Dresden Files, for which Nicolas Cage is executive-producing the pilot. And all those broadcast- network sci-fi thrillers have to get an afterlife somewhere, too.—Anne Becker


Kids' Consortium

Watch out for Sprout, an ad-supported preschoolers network created by PBS Kids, Sesame Street, HIT Entertainment and cable giant Comcast. This is a clever two-part service. On Sept. 26, a linear cable channel launched with deals for 16 million subscribers. That joins an on-demand service launched last spring with 50 hours of English-language and five hours of Spanish-language kids fare.

Sprout takes top shows from its libraries—including Bob the Builder, Dragon Tales, Sesame Street and Tele­tubbies—and organizes them into blocks. “We're trying to follow the day and life of a preschooler,” explains Acting General Manager Diana Kerekes. At night, Sprout surrounds programs with Good Night interstitials: A host reads bedtime stories.

Sprout will air two minutes of commercials an hour, at the beginning or end of programs. A spot for infant toys is OK, but products geared to older kids, like Barbie or Tonka trucks, aren't. (So far, Huggies has signed on.)—A.R.


Suddenly, Raves

It has spent years as that other premium pay cable network. Now Showtime is finally in the spotlight. The network's strategy is to build on niche shows like Queer as Folk and The L Word and then migrate toward mass-market series. Good idea. Drama Huff won an Emmy for best supporting actress Blythe Danner. New dark comedy Weeds, starring Mary Louise Parker, got rave reviews from critics and viewers. In December, terrorism drama Sleeper Cell debuts; Brotherhood—about two brothers, one in organized crime, the other in government—arrives early next year.—A.R.


The Kindest Uncut

With a new branding campaign—“TV Uncut”—Independent Film Channel is making a big push into original programming. Three new series—film parody Greg the Bunny; mockumentary The Festival, about a fake film festival; and animated comedy Hopeless, centered on an indie film studio that resembles Miramax—air in a single one-hour block.

Commercial-free IFC is pushing the envelope and getting edgier. That all ties in to the new branding. “Uncut means staying true to the original vision of the audience and a lack of censorship,” says IFC Executive VP/General Manager Evan Shapiro.—A.R.

Headline News

Gracefully Growing

Headline retooled its prime time lineup in February, swapping out its hard-news wheel at night for Headline Prime's three softer-news programs: Showbiz Tonight, Prime News Tonight and the network's ratings superstar, legal-analysis show Nancy Grace. Headline's ratings are growing in total viewers and its target demo (25-54) during the day and in prime. In fact, it's the fastest-growing news network of 2005. (During the third quarter, Headline grew 108% in prime, averaging 471,000 viewers.)

The change was “a daring and somewhat controversial thing to do, and it's paid off,” says Ken Jautz, executive VP, CNN News Group. “We wish every year could be like this.”—A.B.


Lighten Up, Amigos!

Antoinette Zel, senior executive VP, network strategy, at Telemundo, had her work cut out for her at Mun2. The network had a dark feel, targeting mainly urban males. “The execution was narrow and not as inclusive as it could be,” she says. “It didn't celebrate the young Latino in this country.” That's changing. An entirely new executive team is forging fresh creative partnerships with content-makers and overhauling the on-air look.

The work is yielding results: The only young, Latino network to be tracked by Nielsen, Mun2 has posted one-year ratings growth as high as 660% in the 12-34 demo in key time periods, such as 5-6 p.m. on weekdays. Mun2 is also targeting females and now programs in English and Spanish, recognizing that its young Hispanic demo embraces both cultures. (Mun2, pronounced “mundos,” means “two worlds” in Spanish.) A major consumer-awareness campaign begins in January.—A.B.


A Quiet Hit

After three years of planning, Viacom's gay-themed digital network Logo launched June 30 in 13 million homes (and is up to almost 20 million now).

The network earned an embrace from cable operators, advertisers and viewers alike. At launch, it had carriage on systems owned by Adelphia, Time Warner, RCN, Charter, Cablevision, Atlantic Broadband and DirecTV. It also had advertising deals with Motorola, Tylenol PM, Lions Gate Films, Orbitz, Subaru, and Viacom-owned Showtime Networks and Paramount Pictures. The network's first commercial was for Miller Lite, the sole sponsor of the inaugural telecast, a documentary about gay Americans.

Next up: more original scripted series and wireless and online spinoffs.

Logo quietly built awareness through targeted marketing in gay media, and the network glided into existence without major protests. Says Brian Graden, president of Logo and MTV Networks Entertainment, “Quiet is a beautiful thing.”—A.B.


Bold and Outrageous

Two plastic surgeons from Miami are making FX look downright foxy. This season, Nip/Tuck is averaging 3.1 million viewers in the adults 18-49 demographic, making it the most-watched scripted hour on cable TV. That is all the more impressive, says FX Entertainment President John Landgraf, when you consider that the series season debut was Sept. 20, just as the broadcast networks were beginning their new fall-season onslaught.

With nearly 87 million homes, FX is far larger than most networks on B&C's “breakout” list. But, for most of its 12 years on cable, it didn't get the buzz it enjoys now. Credit The Shield, Rescue Me and Over There with turning FX into cable's hottest brand. “In the last three or four years, they've really put a stamp on the network,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research for Horizon Media.

Says a proud Landgraf, “There's a certain audaciousness in the FX brand we don't want to lose.” —Joel Brown


Original Thinkers

Hallmark's Executive VP of Programming David Kenin says he's establishing a brand that is about “human relations, caring, celebration, trust.” Sounds better than a good greeting card to us. Hallmark's ratings jumped 36% in the third quarter to 987,000 total viewers in prime. The network offered 65.5 hours of original movies and miniseries in the 2004-05 season, more than any other ad-supported cable network.

Hallmark's parent company is up for sale, but Kenin has planned his scheduling through 2007 and into 2008. The network has signed several TV veterans: Dick Van Dyke to a mystery-movie series and Doris Roberts and Shirley Jones to movies. Coming up: a new Sunday-morning show with Naomi Judd starting Nov. 27.

Having built to 70 million homes since its launch in August 2001, Kenin says, “We have moved dramatically in the right direction.”—A.B.

Shop at Home

No Zircons Here

Shop at Home President Judy Girard has been doing a major makeover since Scripps acquired the network for $285 million in 2003. She overhauled the network's infrastructure; fixed the call center, warehouse and IT systems; and hired a senior staff.

She also dipped into the assets in Scripps' portfolio of cable networks to bring talent and new merchandise to Shop at Home's channel and its Web site. There's where synergy made itself felt. When Scripps' Food Network superstar chef Emeril Lagasse hawked goods on SAH, the network more than doubled its normal cooking-utensil revenue. “Slowly but surely, we're finding our way and executing what the Scripps vision was in buying Shop at Home,” says Girard, who is moving on to become president of fellow Scripps network, HGTV. Shop at Home, which will brand itself this year as a home for “solutions,” has a new growth category: scrapbooking.—A.B.

BBC America

A Bit of a Hit

Blimey! BBC America pulled a triple play of major changes this year. The Discovery-managed network brought in a new general manager, doubled its programming budget and moved from Bethesda, Md., to New York.

New General Manager Kathryn Mitchell is spending to create comedies and dramas for the channel and later distribution to the UK, co-producing more shows with the BBC (up to 12 this year versus four last year), and acquiring more shows from the other side of the pond. Although BBCA is still tiny, averaging just 78,000 total viewers in prime, the network's ratings jumped 26% in the third quarter. New series like the strange musical drama Viva Blackpool might cause more to dive in.—A.B.

Discovery Health

Heart in the Right Place

Health has been healthy, which is more than can be said for much of Discovery's portfolio for the past year. It has been growing every quarter and earned its highest-ever prime time performance in the third quarter, averaging 261,000 viewers—up 48% from a year ago.

Its sweet spot is with baby boomers (Health's median age is around 45). It posted year-to-year gains with women 25-54 and in households for 11 quarters. Key programs include Dr. G: Medical Examiner, Plastic Surgery: Before & After, and anything about babies. The network also added psychologist Dr. Joy Browne to its daytime schedule with a live show going behind the scenes of her relationship-advice radio show. Now in 50 million homes, Health is likely to boost its distribution by taking on a more playful personality in prime.—A.B.

National Geographic

Pretty Picture

National Geographic Channel is five years old next year but hit its stride recently with a two-part special about 9/11 that set network viewership records. Nat Geo saw its audience jump 66% year-to-year, averaging 296,000 total viewers in prime during the third quarter.

“We made great strides in ratings and viewer enjoyment, and consumers have clearly embraced us,” says President Laureen Ong. Having grown to 56 million subscribers since 2001, the network—co-owned by National Geographic Ventures and Fox Cable Networks—doubled its upfront-ad-dollar volume over last year. It will continue raising its profile by launching an HD sister network next year. “We definitely have a North Star; we know who we are and who the brand is,” says Ong. “We have originality, boldness, quality and authenticity.”—A.B.

ESPN Deportes

Growth Spurt

Since its full launch in January 2004, ESPN Deportes, the Spanish-language sister network to the sports giant, has expanded into wireless, radio and print platforms and has its own version of ESPN's SportsCenter.

In 2001, Deportes became a separate Sunday-night programming block on ESPN with packages from MLB and the NFL and exclusive boxing matches. Now it carries everything from the NBA to the French Open.

Deportes has grown fast, like the U.S. Hispanic population. “We basically have jumped into it,” says General Manager Lino Garcia. “We're definitely ahead of plan.” There is always something new. In August, Spanish-language magazine La Revista debuted, published in association with Editorial Televisa and ESPN's own magazine. Last month, ESPN Deportes radio went live. Says Garcia, “All the pieces have come together in a good way.”—Melanie Clarke

Great American Country (GAC)

Musically Inclined

Sarah Trahern, programming VP for Great American Country, with 39 million subscribers, boasts that the Scripps music channel plays 1,300 more videos per month than Viacom's much bigger Country Music Television (CMT), which has more than twice as many subscribers.

Under new President Ed Hardy, a veteran country-radio-station owner, GAC is rebranding in an effort to mix old country with its newer derivations. The balancing act means GAC has just finished a month-long celebration of Grand Ole Opry (which it picked up when CMT dropped it) while kick-starting Edge of Country, now a daily show, featuring bluegrass pickers, folk singers and alt-country artists like Steve Earle and Alison Kraus. The emerging GAC is a younger, hipper version that respects Nashville's country roads but widens the boulevards. Smartest move: GAC high-tailed it from Denver to Nashville and will build a new studio on Music Row.—P.J. Bednarski


Gore Wins

Democratizing television might sound like a lofty goal, but that's just what the Current network is aiming to do. The network, helmed by former Vice President Al Gore and legal-services mogul Joel Hyatt, launched Aug. 1 in 20 million homes, aiming to fill its air with short-form viewer-contributed content (or “VC2”) submitted by and chosen by its target audience of 18- to 34-year-olds.

About 30% of Current's programming is submitted by its viewers, mainly amateur filmmakers. That's significantly more than the 5% the network expected viewers to provide. (The rest is produced in-house or acquired).

With most of its distribution on DirecTV, which had carried Current's previous incarnation NewsWorld International (Gore and Hyatt acquired it earlier this year), the network is on a smattering of cable systems, including some Time Warner and Comcast properties, and aims to be in 50 million homes within five years. Gore says feedback from cable operators has been “very encouraging.” Wonder how he's doing in Florida.—A.B.


Big Plans

A slip of the tongue by OLN President Gavin Harvey makes clear the network wants to do more with its National Hockey League telecasts than just follow the puck. “The most important thing to us was to launch the network to the fans—I'm sorry, to launch the sport to the fans—and bring the game back in the way they're accustomed to and not be part of the story,” he said.

The Comcast-owned channel formerly known as the Outdoor Life Network is taking its biggest step toward becoming a rival to ESPN. For its first five NHL games, OLN garnered a 0.3 household rating, less than ESPN's pre-strike hockey audiences, and OLN is in 64 million households, versus ESPN's 90 million. Harvey downplays the ESPN hunt. But he adds, “We don't want to be a small niche network. We want to be a big network.”—J.B.

Google, AOL, Yahoo!

The New World

These are networks? Why not? Investors who have bid Google stock up to the stratosphere and are jockeying to take a position in Time Warner's AOL unit, if it becomes available, are assuming that the answer is yes. TiVo, on-demand and Web streaming-video technology all break the TV appointment-viewing model. Traditional networks' audiences are fragmented, but the search portals still offer an effective—and cost-efficient—way for an advertiser to target a buyer.

The time Americans spend on the Web has increased 37% in the past four years, according to a new Ball State University survey. That's far more than use of any other media has risen. And while advertisers are growing wary of TV's value proposition, it's the rare ad campaign that doesn't include a line item for Google AdSense. Visual media is moving away from content you watch on someone else's schedule to a self-programmed (on-demand, search-driven) world. This is a world that Google's Eric Schmidt, Yahoo's Terry Semel and Time Warner's Richard Parsons see as theirs.—Larry Honig