Crowded house: Is the US cable market oversaturated?

Crowded house: Is the US cable market oversaturated?

Michael Pickard
By Michael Pickard
September 8, 2015

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT

US cable is now home to more drama than ever, with viewers spoilt for choice like never before. But what’s behind the glut – and could the market be reaching saturation point? The major players reveal all.

When it comes to original drama, US premium cable channel Starz is building a varied slate designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of viewers.

In particular, Carmi Zlotnik, the network’s MD, points to three series on its schedule that he describes as “mass-appeal shows” – pirate drama Black Sails, historical romantic fantasy Outlander, and gritty contemporary Power. Together with previous series including Spartacus, Boss, Magic City, and the recently cancelled Da Vinci’s Demons, they back up Zlotnik’s claims that Starz seeks to offer series to meet a wide range of taste.

Third and fourth seasons of Black Sails have been confirmed by Starz
Third and fourth seasons of Black Sails have been confirmed by Starz

He adds that in drama, it’s important to stand out from the crowd with genre fare that appeals directly to certain audience groups. “We want to offer them something different,” he explains. “We’re focused on super-serving the under-served.”

Zlotnik is, of course, referring to those viewers who find their dramatic tastes aren’t satisfied by AMC’s The Walking Dead or HBO’s epic fantasy series Game of Thrones.

But in a wider context, you would be hard pushed to argue viewers are under-served by the sheer volume of original cable drama series being produced. As cable channels that have traditionally shied away from original scripted programming begin to flex their muscles, there is more choice than ever.

Among them, WGN America is building its slate with its latest original drama, Underground, which follows the slaves who set foot on the fabled Underground Railroad and the secret network of men and women who risked their lives aiding them. It is written by creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, while Oscar- and Grammy-winning musician John Legend has signed on as an executive producer and his Get Lifted label will oversee the score, soundtrack and all musical aspects of the series.

WGN has also placed a straight-to-series order for Titan, a drama from Peter Mattei about a family of outsiders living in the remote hills of Appalachia who are willing to defend their way of life by any means necessary.

Reelz Channel, E! and factual networks such as Discovery Channel and History are also in the mix, while regular players including Syfy and USA Network try to keep the competition at bay with their own output.

Arguably one of the strongest drama brands in US cable, FX boasts a slate of series that includes The Shield, Sons of Anarchy and The Strain. “Our goal is to create the best programming on TV and I think we’re up there with the best,” says Eric Schrier, president of original programming at FX Networks and FX Production. “That means HBO, AMC, Showtime and us.

“Now there are some over-the-top players and other cable nets coming into original drama. The proliferation of scripted drama has been tremendous. There’s more product than ever; there are 350 scripted series on TV in the US. The environment is more competitive than ever. We’re holding our own and what that competition means is we have to continue to work harder to achieve greatness.”

Schrier: 'We have to continue to work harder to achieve greatness'
Schrier: ‘We have to continue to work harder to achieve greatness’

Schrier says FX’s brand can be summarised as “fearless,” meaning the network looks for bold, original concepts and also veers away from established forms of storytelling.

“We don’t try to do traditional, we don’t try to imitate,” he says. “We try to be distinctive. It comes back to the key elements that our shows need to be great – great drama, great storytelling; things that have a point of view and have something to say.

“The flip side is we don’t try to do pieces to win awards or impress critics. We want them to be wonderfully entertaining. Our shows are not only great works of drama but are also entertaining, and it’s a combination of those elements that distinguishes us from others in the space.”

Schrier says that as FX has expanded its line-up, it has allowed the network to bring in different genres that still complement its brand.

“American Horror Story is a genre show – it’s fun, there are great performances – and then we have The Americans. You wouldn’t say they fit on the same network but they fit with our core brand — they’re wildly entertaining and have great storytelling,” he says.

Schrier also points to Fargo (main image), the crime drama based on the 1996 feature film from Ethan and Joel Cohen, which will return for a second season this fall.

“We took the idea, the sensibilities, the aesthetics and the locale and created a totally unique story,” he says. “To replicate the feeling of the movie as a 10-episode series was very challenging but those are the risks you need to take to be successful.”

While many are getting into drama for the first time, Spike TV has restarted developing and commissioning original series after an eight-year hiatus. Its first series back in the scripted space, historical epic Tut, is produced by Canada’s Muse Entertainment and written by Michael Vickerman, Brad Bredeweg and Peter Paige.

With miniseries out of favour in the US, Muse had first taken the project to Europe to find financing partners. At the same time, Spike announced its intention to re-enter the scripted arena and asked for proposals for high-end miniseries. They got on board Tut and the three-part series aired across consecutive nights in July. It has also been sold to broadcasters including Channel 5 in the UK, Discovery in Italy, SIC in Portugal, and Sky in New Zealand.

Sons of Anarchy
Sons of Anarchy

Michael Prupas, Muse CEO, says Tut is the company’s most expensive ever drama at a cost of US$6m an hour — topping The Pillars of the Earth, which cost US$5m per hour.

“Spike is primarily a male-orientated network. It’s trying to become a male and female network and is using Tut as an example of its new direction,” Prupas explains. “So the ambition was there to make it into an HBO-style show as much as possible, knowing the bar of production quality is very high and is something they need if they are going to get any attention in the very crowded marketplace in the world of dramatic television.

“The expectations were to have a production of the highest quality. We built sets that were phenomenal in scope – similar to those built for the Cleopatra movie in 1961, with fine attention to detail and an extreme attempt to make sure the look of the show would be first class.”

Muse is currently developing After Camelot, a sequel to The Kennedys for movie-focused Reelz Channel. Katie Holmes will return as Jackie Kennedy. Prupas adds: “Reelz is a small player yet they realise if they’re to attract attention in the crowded cable and internet universe, they need to have high-quality productions.”

It’s also noticeable that many cable channels ordering their first original dramas go straight-to-series, bypassing the pilot process that can often lead to cast changes or script rewrites. Schrier says the pilot process remains “really valuable” for FX, which is looking for “great storytellers with unique concepts.” He adds: “A lot of new entrants and networks trying to step up in the game are going straight-to-series, and we really believe in the learning that goes on through the pilot process. On Sons of Anarchy, our largest hit to date through seven seasons, we learned a lot through the pilot process. That show would not have been the success it’s been if we had not gone through it.”

Craig Cegielski, co-CEO of FremantleMedia North America, says every development process should be deliberate, whether long or short. “All the networks getting into the scripted business are trying to offer value to the producer, studio and showrunner because it’s their entry into the marketplace,” he says. “We look at every network and size up its capacity to support a show, not just air it.

Tut, which aired on Spike TV earlier this year
Tut, which aired on Spike TV earlier this year

“It’s really important for us to partner with networks that understand how to connect to an audience – not just its existing audience but the audience for which we’re making series. In the current landscape, there are so many TV shows that it’s really a partnership and a spoken agreement between the network and the studio that the studio is going to deliver the show as promised and the network’s going to try to reach the audience as promised. And the two working in concert can achieve that.”

That viewpoint might explain why Fremantle spent several years developing its adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s celebrated 2001 novel American Gods before it found a home at Starz in June. The story sets up a war between old and new gods: the traditional gods of biblical and mythological roots from around the world are steadily losing believers to an upstart pantheon of gods reflecting society’s modern love of money, technology, media, celebrity and drugs.

The protagonist, Shadow Moon, is an ex-con who becomes bodyguard and travelling partner to Mr Wednesday, a conman who is actually one of the older gods, on a cross-country mission to gather his forces in preparation to battle the new deities.

“I don’t think there’s a show out there that has more buzz than American Gods,” Cegielski says. “You have a show that even in its development phase has 2,000 websites devoted to fan-casting and 30,000 websites devoted to fan art. It’s about taking these core fans and offering an opportunity for new people to come on board and invest.

“Fans of shows like American Gods, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are so loyal that they will be the evangelicals to usher in new fans. Starz understands that. Almost every network wants that, they want to tap into a fervent existing audience and offer an opportunity to bring non-fans into their tent.”

Cegielski says that part of American Gods’ development period was spent finding writers who could bring to life Gaiman’s “dynamic” storytelling. They materialised in the form of Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (The River).

“We really identified with them from their work and the way they approached the material and understood that Neil’s words had to be translated for television, so it wasn’t a straight adaptation,” Cegielski says of the pair. “As Bryan so eloquently put it, the book is just a toy box that allows them to work and manufacture a larger series because the universe is so large. We spent a lot of time developing it ourselves, and then we took it to Starz.

“I like to think Fremantle has done a really good job at incubating creatives, and not trying to rush them to the market for bare business purposes but rather for the service of the creative. So there are a lot of properties at Fremantle now going to market that have taken their time in the development process to ensure we’re doing right by the material.”

Of course, the number of new players in cable now developing and commissioning their own original dramas has fuelled the demand for content, and competition between platforms. Then there’s Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video and Hulu also shaking up the market.

Katie Holmes and Greg Kinnear in The Kennedys
Katie Holmes and Greg Kinnear in The Kennedys

This means that for Fremantle and Muse, it’s a good time to be a seller. But Cegielski warns that producers must be careful not to let business decisions hamper the creative process: “You have to be very deliberate and very specific about what shows are produced and for whom. We look at what is distinctive about the people at Fremantle and their tastes. What creative material inspires us and what writers do we have relationships with who can come in and elevate that material even further?

“Based on that, we develop the show, and then we take it to the selective networks we think it’s best for. Fifteen years ago everything was broad – the attitude was, ‘Let’s make it as broad as possible and take it to all 23 outlets looking for television.’ Now there are 63 buyers in the market and it’s better to be niche to service that audience because then you’ll have a sustainable asset.”

The number of outlets also means producers now have free rein to develop the genre shows they’re interested in making, knowing there will likely be a home for them in cable.

“The spectrum of television offers an opportunity in all genres, whether it’s the cop procedural or the niche zombie series,” adds Cegielski. “You look at free-to-air broadcast networks that are doing niche shows and, because their audience levels are at niche levels, the shows are getting cancelled. But if those shows were on a basic cable channel, those audiences would be the staple of that network’s programming schedule. Where the seller sells is just as important as the IP and creative attachment. It’s a real ballet from start to finish.”

At Muse, Prupas speculates that with more channels looking for drama, producers are putting more series into development than they used to, though the chances of seeing a project greenlit are subsequently reduced.

“It’s always been the case that in television, the percentage of shows that get produced versus the percentage that get developed has been very small, maybe one in 10, or one in 20,” he says. “Maybe the odds are getting worse these days. I know from our slate, we must have 50 different productions at some level of development in our company, but how many of them are actually going to go-ahead?”

One factor that has attributed to the growth of TV drama is the polarisation of the movie business, Prupas suggests. “There are lots of high-end, heavily action-orientated and effects-driven stories that appeal to a certain demographic, whereas older/family demographics are not finding their thrills at their local movie theatre,” he says. “So TV or viewing online has become a very attractive option – but who’s going to pay for it?

“The Weinstein Company, which had been well known for feature films, has entered the TV business in a big way in the last year and has done Marco Polo for Netflix. Talent also used to be exclusively available to feature films. For example Ben Kingsley, who’s our star in Tut, has worked almost exclusively in feature films over the past 30 years. We’re seeing the same kind of thing with other actors like Kevin Spacey (House of Cards).

“Ten years ago people in the feature film business looked down on the television business; I don’t think that’s the case anymore. There’s a realisation of the great storytelling on television, and I would argue TV offers a better opportunity for quality of audiovisual storytelling than feature films ever did because of extra the time you get to tell a story. You couldn’t have done Game of Thrones as a film, for example – there’s too much to tell.”

Cegielski adds: “The theatrical business has evolved over the last 15 years into a tentpole business. The drama business in theatrical has migrated to TV because you can tell the story a little bit more. Iron Man belongs as a feature film, for example, but if you were to make The Town or Gangs of New York today, they would be awesome television shows.”

Looking to the future, Prupas says the “big issue” won’t be at a creative level but in the boardroom, where those providing financial backing for lesser-watched dramas “are going to get tired of taking loss-leader positions.” He adds: “And if there’s fall in revenue streams because of the migration of advertisers to the internet, there’s going to be a rethink about the amount of money put into these types of productions.

“I suspect we’re going to see some networks drop off the screen. There’s going to be a migration towards a smaller number of quality networks and quality programming. And some people will be taking a big loss.”

From a network viewpoint, Schrier agrees that a lot of expensive programming is passing by unwatched, but says the increasing competition only pushes FX to improve. “There’s so much content being made that only the strongest brands will survive. It cannot sustain itself from an economic point of view. Right now, there’s a lot of content being financed that isn’t being watched, and that’s not sustainable. Programming will level out in terms of how much gets produced and the strongest will survive as new outlets come into the marketplace.

“You have got to bring your A-game and that’s really healthy. I feel good about the programmes we have coming up and the people we’re in business with. We’re going to have a great future.”


 

Rebecca Eaton
Rebecca Eaton

Following the PBS path

US cable networks trying to stand out from the crowd by investing in original drama might do well to follow in PBS’s footsteps.

For more than 30 years, the over-the-air broadcaster has carved itself a niche as the home of British drama, particularly period series, which have aired in the 21.00 slot every Sunday under the Masterpiece banner.

The success of the Masterpiece slot – 4.7 million viewers watch on average per show – means PBS is now expanding its drama output, offering viewers an extra hour of content either side of the slot, at 20.00 and 22.00.

Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece on PBS, explains: “PBS is traditionally the home of the best of British drama. My job is to choose which ones we coproduce and, in a few instances, acquire. So we put in a portion of the funding for many period dramas and mysteries.

“We have seen it all, having come on air in 1971 when there weren’t any British dramas on US TV at all. We came on air with the best of the BBC to start with, and then added ITV content. We have always done British drama — sometimes contemporary, sometimes classic. We have also done things from Australia and Canada.”

Some of the channel’s biggest hits include Call the Midwife, the 1950s-set hospital drama, romantic Last Tango in Halifax and Mr Selfridge, the story of the real-life owner behind London’s iconic Selfridge’s department store.

More recently it has aired period pieces Poldark and Wolf Hall. But many in the US will know it as the home of upstairs-downstairs drama Downton Abbey, which has picked up 11 Emmy wins and 59 nominations. It will compete for eight prizes at this year’s ceremony, including Outstanding Drama Series.

Joanne Froggatt, who plays maid Anna Bates, and Jim Carter (butler Mr Carson) have both been nominated for the Outstanding Supporting Actress/Actor categories.

Beth Hoppe, chief programming officer and general manager of PBS, describes Downton, which is coming to an end after its forthcoming sixth season, as “captivating.”

Eaton says: “We are known for period but we have certainly done contemporary material, such as Sherlock and The Last Enemy. We do branch out and do other contemporary things and we’re looking at that for our 22.00 slot.

“One of the earliest chances we took was on murder mysteries like Agatha Christie’s Poirot. We were also offered a piece about a female police officer, which turned out to be Prime Suspect. We didn’t know how the audience would respond to that but they jumped on it.”

PBS’s coproduction strategy is borne entirely out of economics, as both Eaton and Hoppe say the public broadcaster couldn’t pay the budgets demanded by original productions, particularly those with a historical or period setting.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Radnor in Mercy Street
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Radnor in Mercy Street

It is, however, producing Mercy Street, a rare foray into original US series that focuses on two volunteer nurses serving on opposite sides during the American Civil War. The cast includes Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Death Proof) and Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother), and it is produced by Sawbone Films and Scott Free Productions.

“It comes down to money and this is a public broadcasting channel,” says Eaton. “In return for US rights, we put in a small portion of the total budget. To make these shows ourselves would cost much more money. We have produced a series of mysteries before, based on books by Tony Hillerman. We’ve also coproduced with Robert Redford. They cost a bomb. The economics are very hard.

“PBS is producing its own US drama, but it’s very hard to do and we have to reinvent the wheel every time to do it.”

PBS will air Indian Summers, from Channel 4 in the UK, this fall, with the second season of ITV’s Home Fires coming in January. It will also air the final season of Downton Abbey, before Mercy Street airs in 2016. There will also be more Poldark and Mr Selfridge, plus Churchill’s Secret – a TV movie that tells the story of how a life-threatening stroke suffered by the then-British prime minister is kept secret from the world in 1953.

Looking at the wider television landscape, Eaton and Hoppe agree original drama series could soon reach the peak of production.

Hoppe says drama in the US has reached “saturation point – some shows are doing really well but there’s so much. There are now more outlets, more competition and more to choose from. The economics are such that it will be hard to continue at this pace. There will always be competition for quality drama, and that marketplace has opened up because there are more outlets. But everything is moving towards a saturation point.”

Eaton believes the drama industry, particularly in US cable, will “sort itself out” in a few years. “There’s so much TV and everyone wants to do original material because then they own it and have it forever,” she says. “But there’s too much TV to watch, and only a few entities will rise to the top. Only a few shows will gather an audience. It’s very expensive to do drama. It’s also risky. It’s wonderful to see what everyone is trying to do but my eyeballs are spinning trying to watch it all.”

That’s why PBS is happy to continue investing in the British dramas it has built its brand upon. Eaton adds: “It will begin to settle down and various cable channels will begin to find their niche and deliver themselves. We have found our niche, and now have a reputation for doing high-end drama. We can now stand on the shoulders of that and do even more.”

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