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HRTS: Cable Chiefs -- Risk-Taking is Key to Cable's Future

When it comes to the changing face of the cable network business, executives say that the broadcast-cable divide is narrowing as the market for cable grows increasingly crowded. That was the takeaway from the Hollywood Radio & Television Society (HRTS) Cable Summit 2011 Newsmaker Luncheon held Wednesday at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, Calif.. The panel was moderated by Variety media columnist Brian Lowry.

"[The divide] is more philosophical than real at this point," said Jeff Wachtel, president, original programming for USA Network and co-head, original content for Universal Cable Productions. "I think the major difference had been reach, but now with a number of shows that argument has fallen by the wayside."

FX Networks President and General Manager John Landgraf agreed that the divide is overstated, but added that broadcast's place at the top of the network food chain is critical to all players in the television industry.

"I don't think the broadcasters are going away anytime soon. It's an ecosystem. You still need a top predator, someone who can aggregate the variety of programming that broadcast does," he said. "I think they're going to fix their model and turn themselves effectively into a hybrid of cable models with affiliates."

Showtime Networks Entertainment President David Nevins said that while his network's subscriber-based model inherently distinguishes it from both broadcast and ad-based cable networks, all are on the same page when it comes to raising the bar for programming.

"We're still in the same world of writers, producers and actors. In terms of what we put out there, we need to be sufficiently differentiated," he said, especially when it comes to new pay cablers crowding the marketplace.

Landgraf added, "If every household has 100 channels [now], your concern is about which ones they watch and whether you're one of those."

It's because of that crowding, combined with the narrowing gap with broadcast, that Wachtel says cable's biggest challenge now is to not rest on its laurels.

"You really need to keep with whatever philosophy has brought you to success and continue to take risks," he said. "I think there is pressure in a mature business [like cable] to protect your lead and not push out in risky ways, [but risks are] how anybody got successful in the first place."

Loretha Jones, president of original programming for BET Networks, learned that lesson firsthand. As the number of broadcast shows centered on African-American families retrenched, the cable network faced newfound pressure to provide its audience with scripted program and took a risk with its revival of The Game.

"We knew the audience was there and the demand was there. We had the impetus and that momentum was something we knew we would take advantage of," Jones said of show and BET's newfound success with scripted programming.

While each panelist's respective network faces unique challenges, Landgraf noted, "We're all trying to make noise in a cluttered landscape."