The Importance of Being Different

For those of us who’ve been around the block more
than a few times, it’s hard to remember we were once the new kids on
it. It’s true — we had little in the way of a road map and spent as much
time breaking rules as we did making them up. But the good news is — it

One of the first things cable networks recognized was the importance
of differentiating themselves, not only from each other but from broadcast
networks. After all, they had to give people a reason to pay for what
they’d been getting for free. To do that, they took a literal-minded look at
the media landscape and decided to counter the “broad” in broadcast.

There was clearly a real business opportunity in appealing to narrower
segments of the viewing population: It worked for the MSOs, who wanted
differentiated portfolios, and for advertisers, who could benefit from
focused, concentrated audiences. So, cablers adopted programming philosophies
aimed at specific audiences, with the smartest ones communicating
clearly defined brands.

Nickelodeon declared itself “The First Kids’ Network” — in effect, no
parents allowed. Home Box Office was just that — premium theatrical
films and sporting events in the comfort of your home. MTV issued a hip
rallying cry — “I Want My MTV” — that was catnip to music fans and
MSOs alike.

But some networks managed to succeed in those early days without a
perceived brand, as long as they offered something unique. USA Network
attracted big audiences by delivering sports programming that couldn’t
be found anywhere else, enhanced by an eclectic mix of talk shows, children’s
programming and acquired series and movies.

As the business developed and competition intensified — by 1985, the
number of channels reached a whopping 29 — it became apparent that
cable networks would have to step up their game in order to retain audiences,
differentiate their brands and keep MSOs satisfied. And the most
effective way to do that was to create their own product.

Given the explosion of high-quality original programming on cable in
recent years, it’s fascinating to take a look at how humble its beginnings
actually were. It’s a far, far cry from HBO’s 1st & Ten to Boardwalk Empire,
or from USA’s Swamp Thing to Covert Affairs.

Cablers had certain advantages when it came to developing original
programming. They were starting out with clean slates and minimal bureaucracy,
so they were able to create a new game plan and nimbly zig
where others zagged. Organizations were lean, so people wore multiple
hats, weighing in on everything from programming and production to
marketing and scheduling. And because budgets were equally lean, everyone
learned to do more with less — cost-effectiveness was part of the DNA.

Because of a programming model based on a foundation of acquired
product, they didn’t have the same pressure as broadcasters to fill all of
primetime — not to mention daytime — with originals. They also had
more scheduling flexibility, enabling them to repeat programs in ways
that appealed to viewers. For instance, they invented vertical stacking
and themed “marathons,” allowing viewers to plan their viewing around
blocks of programming they were inclined to enjoy — perhaps the earliest
example of personal customization of a TV schedule.

Cable networks weren’t always bound by the same standards restrictions
as broadcasters, either, which initially meant occasional gratuitous
nudity and language. But that freedom also helped attract fresh new voices
that didn’t fit neatly into the established system. They broke new ground
in a variety of genres like comedy (It’s Garry Shandling’s Show), reality (The
Real World
), and animation (The Ren & Stimpy Show).

Cable programming became buzz-worthy and award-winning. HBO
was the first to make major inroads at the Emmys and, a few years later,
basic cable did the same with outstanding shows like The Shield, Taken
and Monk.

Today, the extraordinary quality of cable programming is setting an industry
standard (check out this year’s Emmy winners!). It’s a logical and
gratifying outcome for an innovative medium whose basic principles resonate
now more than ever; the branding cablers embraced from the outset
is now critical to any content provider who wants to own and monetize
product that lives beyond a linear TV channel. There’s a multitude of platforms
that figure prominently in our future. Who could have guessed their
growth would outpace that of the cable channels that seemed to multiply

The scrappy cable upstarts may have long since joined the establishment,
and those big new ideas may now be standard procedure, but those
of us who were around at the beginning have never lost that pioneering
spirit. That comes in mighty handy as we all face the biggest seismic shift
on the media landscape since the TV audience was fragmented among
(gasp!) 29 channels.

Bonnie Hammer is president of NBC Universal Cable Entertainment
and Universal Cable Productions.