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Earlier today at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, the Hollywood Radio & Television Society (HRTS) continued its Newsmaker Luncheon Series with the 2011 Cable Summit. Variety's Brian Lowry moderated a panel made up of the heads of some of the most successful cable networks on the scene today. The panelists were Loretha Jones, President of Original Programming for BET Networks; David Nevins, President of Entertainment of Showtime; Jeff Wachtel, President of Original Programming at USA as well as co-head of Original Content for Universal Cable Productions; and John Landgraf, President/General Manager of FX. (Previously announced panelist Michael Wright, who serves as Executive Vice President and Head of Programming at TBS, TNT and TCM, was unable to attend to do illness).
During the one-hour panel, Brian asked about the change in both broadcast and cable, what happens to their business model when a show like "Jersey Shore" comes along, why John says he wouldn't make "Damages" again and the ever-challenging world of quickly-changing technology. Our Jim Halterman was on hand to timeline the panel, as follows:
1:02 PM - HRTS Executive Director Dave Ferrara thanks the co-chairs of today's luncheon for gathering the esteemed panel - Craig Erwich (Executive Vice President, Warner Horizon Television), Kelly Goode, Senior Vice President, GSN), Greg Lipstone (Head, International TV and Media, ICM) and Sean Perry (Co-Department head, Alternative Television, WME).
1:07 PM - Dave introduces our panel and Brian kicks off his moderating duties by first offering up $500 to anyone who can take a picture of him that doesn't look like Leonard Maltin. Nobody takes him up on it. (He really looks like Leonard Maltin!)
1:10 PM - Brian asks the panel about the differences today between cable and broadcast television. "More than half the audience is watching cable," says Jeff. "Financially, cable networks are major profit center... and they're creating value for the studios and the producers who create the shows." John points out that every household can have cable but how many channels are they actually watching? With event programming like the NBA All-Star Game or the NFL, the audience will find that programming wherever it is.
1:14 PM - Loretha talks about how things are a little different for BET due to the demographic of their audience. "You'll find more African-Americans all day long on our network than are on any of the broadcast networks. That is a sad but true fact."
1:15 PM - How about with a subscriber-based network like Showtime? David says, "Fortunately for us, the subscription model is where a lot of different programming services are starting to go. People are comfortable writing out a check every month."
1:17 PM - Brian asks about the fact that OWN launched last month and Conan O'Brien went from broadcast to cable for his show. Does the panel see this as a watershed moment for the cable industry in terms of overtaking broadcast? John feels that notion is a bit overstated. "I think cable is an incredibly vibrant business and vibrant for all forms of programming but I don't think broadcasters are going away anytime soon." He did say that broadcast networks are in the process of fixing their model. Jeff agreed that this isn't a watershed moment but that it's about "not chasing volume over quality."
1:20 PM - Brian brings up huge cable hits like MTV's "Jersey Shore" and BET's "The Game" and asks how that affects expectations and the business model. David says "Of course. We're competitive. Again, we operate in a different small universe but we're all trying to make noise in a cluttered landscape."
1:22 PM - One problem Loretha says BET has is the lack of African-American shows on the broadcast networks that has led them to begin to produce their own programming. That reality is they "have to deal with that because we don't have access to off-network shows to buy in syndication because it's been a couple of years... actually about four years since 'The Game' was the last network show centered around an African American cast." And, in describing the frustrations of not having programs to put on their network, Loretha drops the first f-bomb of the panel... and gets a round of laughs and applause.
1:24 PM - Brian asks Loretha if she knew the numbers for the BET premiere of "The Game" were going to strike such a chord with viewers. "I had no inkling that it would do that. I remember that we knew it was going to potentially be really big because we had been working on it in our focus since six months after I got there... we knew the audience was there, we knew the demand was there. Literally the day I arrived [at BET], there were a bunch of emails that I received that said 'Why don't you bring back 'The Game?''"
1:26 PM - Someone asks where HBO is on this panel and Brian jokes that they are off "counting money." That said, since Showtime is subscriber based, how important are ratings to he and his team? "An extra two million viewers for 'Dexter' does not mean any more revenue for us [but] we want to put on shows so people who aren't subscribers want to subscribe and people who are subscribers want to keep their subscription." That difference, David explains, "makes my job interesting, sometimes easier, sometimes harder but it does present interesting possibilities."
1:29 PM - It takes almost 30 minutes before the first question to John about "Terriers" comes up and the letter he wrote to the media and viewers explaining the decision to cancel the critically loved/low-rated series. "It's really hard to cancel a show that good but I think it's not hard to cancel a show that is not doing well from a ratings standpoint and is not that good." He goes on to talk about the valued relationship with the audience and that's why he felt compelled to address the cancellation.
1:31 PM - On the other hand, Jeff doesn't have much of a history of canceling shows on the USA network. Why is that? "We've been fortunate the last couple of years to have ratings sustain and not have to cancel shows but I think John has a really good point about the relationship with the audience." Jeff cites shows like "Monk" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," and how the network can give long-running shows a final season out of respect to the audience and the show unlike what NBC did with the sudden cancellation of the mothership "Law & Order."
1:35 PM - More on audiences, John talks about two big hits from last year - BET's "The Game" and AMC's "The Walking Dead." He says that AMC "has a median age of about 50 and the median age for 'The Walking Dead' audience was 25 so that was a show that's literally strong enough to bring a massive audience that is not watching AMC to AMC." He says one thing they all want is to continue to grow.
1:37 PM - David on expanding the Showtime brand with shows like "Shameless" and "Episodes." "They're not single-lead shows. 'Shameless' in particular is a much younger audience... the typical Showtime audience shows up at the beginning and slowly but surely we've been gathering up people... that's what a hit looks like when you nurture a building audience. It's a tricky thing."
1:42 PM - What are some of the biggest challenges to the cable business model? Jeff says, "We've been doing okay for awhile and now the challenges really start to begin... [and] how are we going to measure [the audience] intelligently."
1:44 PM - John sees the pressures in original scripted programming and the DVR. "Audiences seem perfectly happy to watch game shows, sporting events, reality shows first on DVRs... the combination of the DVR and piracy is very daunting."
1:46 PM - In terms of "Damages," the Glenn Close drama that will live its next two seasons on DirecTV after FX cancelled it, John admits "I wouldn't make that show again." He feels that the heavily serialized element of that series made it tougher to monetize since people wouldn't watch weekly but two to three episodes at a time. "We made a show that literally is better to watch via piracy or DVR than live."
1:49 PM - Jeff talks about the different ways that people watch TV, mentioning his 13-year old daughter who he jokes he may not get her attention easily when she's video chatting, texting and watching television at the same time but, ironically, when she watches "Glee" she watches all the commercials.
1:51 PM - Brian announces a lightning round in the final minutes of the panel! Which channel or company do they think are really hitting it? Jeff and Loretha say AMC. David says the news services but asks if he can say CBS. (He's allowed.) Landgraf mentions the success of The History Channel and how well they've done in a short time.
1:55 PM - How much of the panel's programming is their personal taste? David, formerly a network/studio programming executive and producer, says "Really for the first time in my career I'm in a position where I get to make those [decisions]." Loretha says coming from the world of film, TV is new to her. She doesn't watch reality TV but realizes BET needs a mix of variety on the channel. For Wachtel, "one person's passion will overcome everyone else's indifference."
1:59 PM - That's a wrap from the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The next HRTS event is "Unscripted Hitmakers" on April 12. For more on HRTS events, visit HRTS.org.