"American Idol might skew young," says Steve Sternberg, SVP/director of audience analysis, MAGNA Global USA, "but its viewership is also very broad. For advertisers seeking very specific demos, there's no question that narrow [i.e., network cable] is good."
While today's Joe Millionaire and Survivor helped put the words "reality TV" on broadcast viewers' lips, cable networks like MTV and TLC (The Learning Channel) actually created the genre in the 1990s with shows such as Real World, A Baby Story, and A Wedding Story, which were hugely popular with the narrow but desirable young teen demo, new moms, and women 18-34.
"We called these programs 'reality' before anyone, we just didn't sensationalize it," says Amy Baker, VP of Discovery Solutions, the ad-selling arm of Discovery Networks, which includes Discovery, TLC, Animal Planet, and Travel Channel, to name just a few.
Like many other cable executives, however, Baker doesn't like to call what TLC does "reality TV." TLC has its own formula: "Life Unscripted."
"We knew there were women viewers at home interested in A Baby and A Wedding Story" (shows using real footage of these memorable events), Baker says. "And from an advertiser's standpoint, they worked well." Today, TLC is the number one network in daytime in female demos (18-34 and 18-49.) Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Kraft, and others soon signed on. As time went on, however, and TLC began to create "life unscripted" programs with clout, such as the top-rated Trading Spaces (ranked number one for adults 18-49 in January), some untapped categories began to buy time, including upscale autos like Lexus.
"Reality TV is going to continue to grow on our network," Baker adds. "And advertisers will also be interested because it's quality programming with quality viewers. These women are upscale and well-educated."
Baker also joins a chorus of cable network execs quick to add their own "We're not like The Shield" caveat, mentioning the highly rated, award-winning FX show by name. "Unlike The Shield, we offer a very positive environment," Baker says. "Even with our shows Maternity Ward or Trauma, where things can go wrong, we make sure our viewers never feel uncomfortable." According to Baker, while the recent success of Trading Spaces helped TLC grow revenues, it was the entire reality trend, packaged over a two-year period, that gave the network "double-digit ad revenue increases."
TNT's Steve Koonin, EVP/GM, calls his "We Know Drama" logo the "anti-reality trend." "I think you can have some success with one-hit wonders like The Shield, but after that, what have you got?" he asks. "Our brand is drama. It's not sexy, it's not glamorous, but it will build a network." Indeed, the hit original movie Monte Walsh, a cowboy epic starring Tom Selleck, catapulted TNT to number one among adults 18-49 and 25-54 for the week it ran, and set a record for Friday night numbers by garnering a 5.7 HH cable rating.
"We think original programs work for us," Koonin says. "We don't need a series to define us. We already have a brand." And, echoing others, Koonin adds, "Quality matters. Environment matters. Advertisers want viewers that are highly engaged."
TNT and Johnson & Johnson (one of the prime movers behind The Family Friendly Programming Forum) signed a deal with TNT in 2002 to co-present original movies, Miss Lettie and Me and Door to Door, the latter starring William Macy.
"Door to Door won both Golden Globe and SAG nominations and great critical acclaim," Koonin says. "This exemplifies TNT's trademark films as ideal vehicles that provide a shared family experience with dramatic programming that can engage both heart and mind." (Johnson&Johnson recently announced a yearlong cross-promotion deal with Discovery Networks.)
Bruce Lefkowitz, EVP/ad sales, FX, and the man who sells spots on The Shield, is all for that. "As a father of six, I'm very concerned about what my kids watch," he says.
Having said that, however, Lefkowitz makes no apologies for the very adult and very in-your-face drama series, which, he notes, not only has won major awards and critical acclaim, but also runs at 10 p.m. with an audience 98% of whom are over 18.
Here, too, don't use the word "reality" as a descriptive.
"We call ourselves 'authentic programming,'" says Lefkowitz. And while he acknowledges that 14 advertisers dropped out of the show when it debuted last year, he's quick to add, "This year, we're virtually sold out."
FX provides Shield advertisers with screening copies in advance of each episode, and several deals offer opportunities for sponsors to opt out if a particular show's content makes them uncomfortable. "So far, we haven't had one advertiser pull out," Lefkowitz adds.
Lefkowitz sees more cable networks doing similar "authentic" stuff, but, he says, "it's easier said than done. You can't just put up naughty words. The scripts must be good."
Comedy Central, which took some hits with its highly controversial South Park, knows there's gold in extreme content, but, like FX, tucks it away in late-night prime. After a two-year budget freeze, Comedy says it's ready for more. "Our 2003 budget is up 25%," says Bill Hilary, EVP/GM, Comedy Central. He sees two clear programming trends ahead.
"Original programming spending will increase, while acquisitions of previously aired programming will decrease," Hilary says, "especially since viewers can get whatever they want on pay-per-view or DVD."
"The huge reason we've done so well is we have a very, very clearly differentiated audience," says Hank Close, EVP, ad sales. "And this means the good old days for buyers and planners because they can target by both demo and psychographics, and with a specificity they didn't have 10 years ago." Adds Hilary, "While overall advertising spending grew only 3.2% this year, Comedy Central was up 17%."
Edginess has hit news programming too, with even Jerry Seinfeld riffing on all those jumpy graphics on cable news. And agency buyers have taken note.
"Quite frankly, Roger Ailes found CNN boring," says Bill Shine, network executive producer, The Fox News Channel. "He made news more fun to watch, with more sound effects and better graphics. Simply visual things."
Shine points out that Fox shows its anchors with legs, and not always behind a desk. As for news trends, he predicts, "Cable news will get more in-depth." Shine still defends, however, giving hot stories their own music and "logo" (e.g., coverage of the space shuttle disaster was called "Farewell to Heroes.") "People flip by," he explains. "It's like radio. They wouldn't know what they're watching [without them]. Our job is to be there when the audience tunes in."
Making cable news look "sexier" certainly grabs that restless pair of eyeballs, although Shine insists quality has helped make Fox first. "We've come off 13 straight weeks as number one," says Roger Domal, Fox News Channel VP/national sales director. "We've brought a whole new audience to news, and the benefits we pitch to buyers and planners is the loyalty and involvement of these viewers. On average, they stay with us 27 minutes. They are not quick to use the remote. Advertisers are virtually guaranteed viewers will see one of their spots."
Domal cites a quote by Jon Mandel, chief negotiating officer, MediaCom, that underscores the appeal of the 'engaged viewers:' "If the audience likes the program, they are more inclined to like the commercials they're also watching."
Yet it takes more than intellectual passion for a program to lure viewers. Explicit sexual content also appears to be a programming trend.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, two thirds of all shows from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. have some sexual content. Four years ago, that figure was half that. This forces cable into an agenda-bending situation: promoting quality environments while clobbering "acceptable social standards" at the same time.
Five years ago, the Association of National Advertisers created The Family Friendly Programming Forum, using advertiser clout and money to "take a positive step to increasing family programming choices on television," specifically between 8 and 10 p.m. Within a year, the Forum had underwritten a new WB series, The Gilmore Girls, which not only preaches abstinence but remains a hit.
Looking at the top 10 cable programs for January is an exercise in opposite attractions. While family-friendly programs like Monte Walsh and Trading Spaces won among households and adults 25-54, the top five spots for adults 18-34 were Real World XII (first three spots) and The Osbournes (second three spots). X-rated language is one of the breakthrough aspects of Ozzy and his family, while the defining moment on Real World Las Vegas included two girls kissing in the hot tub. But that's why people pay for cable.
Jean Bergantini Grillo is a New York City-based writer who has covered popular culture and the television industry for more than 15 years. Her column on media buying appears weekly in Broadcasting & Cable.