Amid overall ratings struggles for its parent company Viacom’s portfolio of cable networks, TV Land is looking to build its ratings fortunes by repositioning itself as a comedy-centric network focusing on a 25-54 audience, which is a departure from its previous target audience of 50-plus baby boomers. The network has traded earlier, older-skewing original shows like Hot in Cleveland for new comedies slash dramas like Younger, starring Sutton Foster as a 40-year-old mother trying to pass herself off as 26 to land her dream job, and the upcoming Lopez series, in which comedian George Lopez plays himself as a Latino comedian who tries to balance the spoils of his success with his humble beginnings. Leading the network’s programming charge is Keith Cox, TV Land’s executive vice president of development and original programming. Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead and Cox spoke after the network’s upfront presentation in New York about the network’s repositioning, as well as some of the challenges it faces in a crowded programming environment. Here are some edited highlights.
MCN:How would you define the TV Land brand?
Keith Cox: The DNA for the channel has always been great comedies. Even with our acquisitions, we curated the best comedies that the broadcast networks offered. At the time, my role to augment that was to make multicam comedies like Hot in Cleveland that featured great casts and fun concepts. But now the TV landscape has become so crowded, with 400-plus shows. For comedies, it’s especially hard to get traction, unlike the great dramas that people are driven toward mostly because of serialized storytelling. Big things can happen in dramas — the killing off of main characters and other big surprises — that aren’t really done in comedy.
So where we mutated a bit is staying in comedy, but adding more dramatic elements; nobody’s really doing that in a half-hour sitcom. Our first foray into that was [producer] Darren Star’s Younger, and then we launched [dark comedy] Impastor, which has a big mystery element built in into it. So yes it’s an evolution, but it’s not a total rebrand because we’re still in the comedy space.
MCN:So if the brand has evolved, has your target audience changed as well from baby boomers over 50 to a younger audience?
KC: It was boomers, but they have aged, so now we’re looking at Gen X. We do like people with life experience … we sell adults 25-54, but we’re leaning more 18-49. We wanted to do something real and less fabricated, which is a risk, but it stands out for the audience.
MCN:How do you appeal to a younger audience while serving your core viewers?
KC: Through shows like Younger, which was our first soap and is working for us — we’ve just picked up our third season. With the Lopez show, I’ve always been a George Lopez fan and he knows how to push buttons but there is a lot of likeability there. He’s basically playing himself and he has a distinct voice. He really goes into some dark places, but it’s really funny. It’s a nice balance and it’s really a different genre and I’m excited about that.
MCN:What are the challenges you face as a programmer within a very crowded multichannel environment?
KC: There is a lot of TV in the marketplace and it’s hard to create urgency with the comedy genre. With Game of Thrones crazy stuff happens and people talk about it; The Walking Dead is eye-popping. Comedies are harder: they are there but you can catch them almost anytime, there isn’t as much urgency. People want spectacular television, so we need figure out how to add that drama into our comedies. You want to tell stories that invest the audience — we need to develop superfans. If you try to build it for everybody, it loses its voice.
There’s also a need for more diverse writers. That’s a challenge, but it’s an exciting challenge for us.
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.