Original Thinking Drives Independent Networks

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The networks backed by massive corporations have a vital advantage in the modern television world, but when John DeGarmo, Reelz senior VP of sales and distribution, ventured to Denver to pitch Sling TV on including Reelz in its over-the-top channels bundle, he played up the network’s independent status.

“We’re an independent network making a lot of investment in original programming,” he said at the start of the pitch. “I like to think of us as a little more maverick, with exciting ideas on new programming.”

The bulk of Reelz’s new originals show celebrities in a tight spot, including schedule debutants The Kitty Kelley Files, which debuts July 29, and Broke and Famous and US Weekly’s Famous Feuds, both of which premiere Sept. 8. Sling executives apparently liked what they heard from DeGarmo. He said the pitch was well-received and is optimistic Reelz would be included in the Sling package.

Independents’ Day

There aren’t many independent networks left in a TV world where scale is a major priority. Reelz, owned by radio biggie Hubbard Media Group, is based in Albuquerque, N.M., and available in 70 million homes. Hubbard also owns a piece of Ovation, the arts network that too revels in its independent status, and reaches 50 million homes.

Thanks in large part to its pricey costume drama Versailles, about the reign of Louis XIV, Ovation is finishing up its upfront negotiations on a hot streak, Liz Janneman, executive VP of network strategy, said. “We’re seeing revenue growth up 30%,” she said. Ovation’s other owners include Arcadia. Janneman speaks of the “simplicity” of doing business with an independent such as Ovation. “We’re not leveraging 15 other things to give you the one thing you want,” she said. “There may be one series that advertisers want, but the leverage of the bundled approach makes it costly.”

To be sure, a media corporation boasting a dozen networks wields considerable heft with multichannel video programming distributors and advertisers alike. But each of those networks has to prove its individual worth more and more in an increasingly a la carte world that sees skinny bundles selecting the top networks, and skipping the rest.

Earlier this year, Viacom president and CEO Bob Bakish took a similar approach to the corporation’s networks portfolio. He spoke of prioritizing the “flagship six” networks within the company: BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr. and Paramount Network, as Spike TV will be known. Not included in the select group were TV Land, VH1 and CMT, among others.

But the independents say there are perks to being a standalone. Steve Cheskin, senior VP of programming at Reelz, who previously spent 20 years at Discovery Networks, said he interacts with CEO Stan E. Hubbard “all the time” — a far less likely scenario at a major corporation.

“When you say, ‘the buck stops here,’ it truly does,” he said.

Cheskin mentions how quickly the network moved to grab the 2015 Miss USA pageant — it took a week, he said — after NBC and Univision dropped it following disparaging remarks about Latinos made by former pageant owner Donald Trump. When Reelz announced it would air the competition, Hubbard played up Reelz’s independence in a statement. “As one of only a few independent networks, we decided to exercise our own voice and committed ourselves to bringing this pageant to American viewers everywhere,” he said.

DeGarmo acknowledged the lack of leverage that comes with being independent, but said he enjoys the network’s nimble approach to doing business. “We’re not hamstrung by a lot of other networks,” he said. “There’s not a lot of baggage to us. We stand alone.”

Be Original

Both Reelz and Ovation are placing bets on original programming. Reelz has 30-40 hours more originals this year, and far fewer movies, said Cheskin.

That includes the special Elvis Presley: Behind Closed Doors, which debuts Aug. 13 and is hosted by Natalie Morales; The Stalker Files, about celebrity stalkers, which debuts Nov. 10; and It Happened Here, which retraces the final footsteps of stars such as John Lennon, Janis Joplin and John Belushi, and also debuts Nov. 10. Cheskin said “dramatic stories involving celebrities” were largely abandoned by other networks, mentioning VH1’s Behind the Music.

“There was a real niche sitting there,” he said. “People have a hunger for celebrity information.”

On Ovation, season two of Versailles starts up Sept. 30, while The Halcyon — another period piece, this one set in World War II England — premieres Oct. 2. Janneman said high-quality originals — the first season of Versailles, a French production, cost around 30 million euros, according to Ovation, or $34.9 million — are a “point of differentiation” for the network.

Other returning Ovation series include The Art of, about “boundary-pushing artists” and pieces that fall outside traditional art, according to Ovation; and The Artful Detective, set in turn-of-the-20th century Toronto.

While the big-budget Versailles represents an exceptional move by Ovation, the challenges of being independent are nothing new for the folks at the network. “We’ve always lived in a world where we have to vie for our place,” said Janneman, “our piece of the real estate.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone is content director at B+C and Multichannel News. He joined B+C in 2005 and has covered network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television, including writing the "Local News Close-Up" market profiles. He also hosted the podcasts "Busted Pilot" and "Series Business." His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The L.A. Times, The Boston Globe and New York magazine.