UPFRONT & CENTER: New Shows, New Sponsors for Sundance Channel

Sundance Channel green-lit a music-focused talk show hosted by musician Elvis Costello and co-executive produced by Elton John.

The show, Spectacle: Elvis Costello with …,is a co-production with Canada’s CTV and the United Kingdom’s Channel 4, as well as FremantleMedia North America, and it is slated to join the network later this year.

Over 13 hour-long episodes, Costello will have one-on-one interviews with musicians and feature their performances. John’s Rocket Pictures is backing the show -- John and Costello are close friends. Sundance grew convinced of Costello’s viability as a host after the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer guest-hosted for David Letterman when the latter was out ill, Sundance executives said.

The show led a development slate the network unveiled at a presentation to press in New York Wednesday morning.

Others of Sundance’s some seven original shows in development include The Lazy Environmentalist, a show based upon the book by environmental entrepreneur and radio personality Josh Dorfman; Johnny Weir: Black Swan Rising, a show profiling the colorful U.S. Olympic Games figure skater; and World’s Greatest Treasure Hunt, a show about the head buyer for eclectic retail chain Anthropologie.

The network also slated 2008 to premiere Architecture School, a six-part reality show about architecture students at Tulane University; The War Room + 15, a documentary about the intersection of politics and media produced by R.J. Cutler, Wendy Ettinger and Frazer Pennebaker; and a fourth season of its famous-person-on-famous-person interview series, Iconoclasts, with the season-premiere episode featuring Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sir Richard Branson.

Stepping up its production of original content has allowed Sundance to broaden its revenue generation over the past couple of years. Whereas the network had existed previously as a premium channel, relying almost entirely upon subscription fees for revenue, it now also includes advertiser sponsorship of its original content.

The network’s fare is about 70% acquired features and documentaries, 25% exclusive series and 5% shorts and hosted segments -- an evolution from the 90% features and documentaries it had a few years back.

The network’s aim has been to make its shows both “bigger” and “broader,” with top-level talent and new subject matter, such as design, while at once making them unique and customizable to sponsor needs, executive vice president and general manager, programming and creative affairs Laura Michalchyshyn said.

“We’re really blowing it out,” she said, adding that Sundance has tripled its original programming over the past three years.

Particularly successful as far as the network’s evolution into more original and acquired series has been its environmentally focused block, The Green, which has been attractive to the slew of corporations looking to yield a halo effect by associating their brands with eco-friendly content. Sundance announced several acquisitions for that block.

Other acqusitions include BBC satire The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle, which stars Jennifer Saunders as a talk-show host, and a new season of RDF’s Ladette to Lady, a reality show about raunchy bar chicks who are transformed by finishing school, which is also being adapted for MTV.

The channel broadened its revenue generation through deals to syndicate its content and through online programming. Syndication partners include Virgin America, which carries Sundance shows on its flights; wireless providers Verizon Wireless and Helio; and Web sites like YouTube, Yahoo and Hulu, in addition to video-on-demand offerings through cable operators.

New digital projects include original Web series The Good Fight, Webisodes about the eco-focused rebuilding of Greensburg, Kan., which was destroyed by a tornado; and Green Porno, eight insect-focused shorts created by and starring Isabella Rossellini.

Sundance president and CEO Larry Aidem began the morning’s presentation by calling attention to rumored reports that the channel was for sale, saying officially that the company “refused to comment on the recent sale rumors,” praising its current owners -- NBC Universal, CBS and Robert Redford -- and joking that potential bidders included Wal-Mart, Denny’s, Tenet Healthcare and USAir.

Sundance also used the upfront to tout a new research study on engagement it conducted with OTX (the Online Testing Exchange). According to the study, based on a sample of 1,505 people, Sundance viewers are more affluent and involved in technology than viewers of its competitive networks, including Bravo and A&E Network.

For complete coverage of the upfronts, click here.