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Reelz Gets Ready to Stage Big Coming-Out Party

As Upfront season approaches, Reelz Channel feels like it is ready to party.

Reelz has not done a formal upfront event in several years, but now the network believes it has a story to tell and that the best way to make a good impression on media buyers is over drinks and entertainment.

As a small, independent network, Reelz has to work harder to shake ad dollars out of buyers. But the story Reelz is selling has been a successful one for other networks that have shifted from a narrow niche and acquired movies to making a splash with original programming. And it’s a strategy more networks are employing.

Bill Rosolie, Reelz senior VP for ad sales, helped make that strategy work in his previous job with AMC, now one of cable’s highest fliers.

“As far as the challenges go, it’s very similar,” Rosolie says. “AMC had no brand when I started in 2007. People used to say the same thing to me back then, which was ‘Oh yeah, black-and-white movie network.’ No one was watching it.”

Reelz Rising

Reelz’ primetime rating among adults 25-54 was up 3% last year, but the channel still ranked only No. 68 among all ad-supported cable networks in the demo.

Rosolie knows it takes a couple of years of good programming to change a brand image. “When we were selling Mad Men year one, and then year two Breaking Bad came around, people still weren’t lining up,” he recalls of his AMC days.

Now’s a good time for Reelz to try to establish a brand. It started putting itself on the original programming map when it acquired the miniseries The Kennedys after History decided not to air it. The mini drew big numbers for Reelz in 2012, but it was a one-shot deal, and ad buyers like more continuity.

“This year, it’s different,” Rosolie says. “We’ve had some successes, starting with the unscripted show Beverly Hills Pawn,” which launched in June and tripled the network’s normal primetime ratings. The network also did well with miniseries The Smoking Gun in the fourth quarter.

More original programming will air in the first quarter as the upfronts heat up. “Last year in Q1, we were probably 95% movies in primetime. This year we will be 80%-85% original programming,” Rosolie says. First-quarter programs include Steven Seagal Lawman—The Lost Season, Hollywood Hillbillies and The Capones.

“We feel like we’re making a big splash in Q1, and we’ve got a lot more programming coming down the pike for the rest of ’14 into ’15,” Rosolie says. The network is also overhauling its daytime lineup.

Reelz will continue to use the slogan “Hollywood Happens Here,” but its meaning is changing. “What does Hollywood do? It entertains people,” Rosolie says. And that’s the message he’s hoping the upfront event on April 9 will convey.

“We want them to walk out of there feeling good about the network, feeling that this network is about fun and entertainment. And you can’t do that in a presentation,” Rosolie says. He declined to say where the event will take place or just what entertainment will be offered.

Derek Baine, research director at SNL Kagan, estimates The Kennedys helped boost Reelz’ ad revenue in 2012 by 22% to $37.5 million. Ad sales grew modestly last year, but Baine expects a 17% jump to $56 million in 2014. Original programming is also helping Reelz start to charge cable operators a license fee. “If this strategy is successful, they will have a lot more programming budget to work with,” Baine says.

The upfront bash certainly couldn’t hurt, according to Marc Morse, senior VP for national broadcast at media agency R.J. Palmer. “It’s all about building relationships and making yourself the focal point for one night in a sea of cable networks,” Morse says. Most of the ad buys on Reelz are going to be executed by younger buyers, Morse adds, and they’re the ones that really like to go to parties—unlike more senior executives, who have been there, done that.

As a small independent network, “they still have to fight for their business. It’s not an automatic buy for a lot of people,” Morse says. Reelz has proved to be willing to work with buyers to create sponsorships and added value at lower out-of-pocket costs than the big guys. “When you want to do something big on those networks, it’s a million to 5 million bucks,” Morse says. That’s nearly the entire cable budget for many clients. “For a half-million dollars, Reelz really works hard for your business.”

Morse says Reelz can be successful with advertisers if it delivers good programming. “The way they’re going to become AMC is they’re going to spend money, they’re going to work hard, and then they get lucky. That’s how you become AMC.”

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.