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Programmers: It's TimeTo Go Big, or Go Home

In an era when hits can generate $1 billion in revenue, as BOA/Merrill Lynch media analyst Jessica Reif Cohen noted last month at B&C’s OnScreen Media Summit, programming strategies are targeting brand-defining, monster hits more than ever.

It’s not just about the big paychecks popular programming draws from the multiple revenue streams now in play. Hits drive network value in the increasingly competitive affiliate and marketing communities; they reinforce brands’ relationships with the viewer; and perhaps most importantly, a giant success is what it takes to break through in the ever noisier landscape.

The proliferation of entertainment choices shows no signs of slowing. As FX Networks president and general manager John Landgraf points out, in 2002, the year his network launched its first original series hit with The Shield, the show was one of 35 series in basic and premium cable. In 2011, there were 135. Now Netflix is jumping in with originals, YouTube has new channels, Starz is ramping up, HBO and Showtime are as busy as ever, not to mention the Big Four, the CW, Univision, Telemundo, USA, Turner…you get the picture.

“You’re not going to grow your business or emissary beyond your core without a really, really big hit,” Landgraf said. “It’s the only thing that will rise to people’s consciousness and bubble up. And every programmer is aware of that.”

So here’s what to look for in 2012.

Fewer, Bigger Swings

Look for programming execs to focus resources on several big plays rather than large slates of seemingly safe plays—even if some recent ambitious efforts disappointed. While ABC is benching Sony Pictures TV’s bigticket drama Pan Am in midseason, Steve Mosko, president of SPT, said he is sticking to his strategy of doing fewer shows better: “If people are spending $5-10 million on pilots, if you go the cheap route, I can guarantee you that you spend $3 million in wasted money because when you put it against a $6 million pilot, you lose,” Mosko said at OnScreen.

The Fox network and Twentieth Century Fox TV studio, which collaborated on the expensive time-travel drama Terra Nova, which did not break out, are planning some big projects outside the traditional development season, including a reboot of The Flintstones in partnership with Warner Bros. TV.

More Comedy

From ABC’s Suburgatory and Fox’s New Girl to CBS’ Two Broke Girls and NBC’s Up All Night, the recent successes among primetime comedy launches no doubt already inspired increased efforts across the industry to launch more comedy. “We [the TV industry] tend to try to chase our successes,” 20th Century Fox TV chairman Dana Walden told B&C recently.

The comedy genre has proven to perform best in primetime when paired with others in a block. So now that they are all armed with something new to laugh about, expect all of the Big Four to keep on the comedy path. Even the CW, which has not been in the comedy business, is making moves into the genre, ordering comedy scripts.

As more cable networks also pursue original comedy, Walden said the challenge will be “building a financial scale which makes sense for those platforms.”

Keep Getting Real

Narrative nonfiction also will continue to be popular, especially on basic cable networks that can stack repeats leading into originals with relative financial ease and keep the ratings pumping. The genre has some of the same appeal of the ripped-from-the-headlines procedural dramas that were hot for so long, like Law & Order, FX’s Landgraf said. So expect more of that: “Literally there isn’t an odd, charismatic, quirky shopkeeper in America with a family-run business that is not being scouted out by an agent,” Landgraf said.

And There Will Always Be Drama

Landgraf added that the enthusiasm for comedy and reality does not mean folks have thrown in the towel on drama. Programming execs expect a moderate uptick in drama entries in 2012.

Also Looming in 2012

The Netflix Effect and The Streaming Situation: After finding a gigantic hit, the next biggest thing on programmers’ minds is “an orderly transition to the digital world,” as one exec puts it. From the threat of online piracy to the windowing of authenticated video streams and the big question of whether Netflix (or any other on-demand platform) can successfully launch new originals, consumer habits and how to measure and monetize them will be closely watched in 2012 and beyond.

Signs of Life At NBC: By many accounts, a turnaround at NBC is at least a five-year endeavor, even with a well-regarded executive team now in place. But there are some green shoots—or at least some launching pads, in The Voice, the Super Bowl and the Olympics—to help take some shots, like NBC’s internal favorite, Smash. All it takes is one success to get things going.

Death of the Daytime Soap: In a year, ABC’s All My Children and CBS’ Guiding Light were canceled, and in January, ABC’s One Life to Live ends. At this rate, 2012 may be the year the decades-old daytime soap genre officially becomes extinct.

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