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A Bravo New World

Television: The cable network has angered longtime viewers by adding commercials to programs, which it says was the only way to compete and survive.

April 30, 1999|ELIZABETH JENSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — As Patrick Kearney related it to the Internet chat room, it all started for him during an airing of Peter Medak's "The Ruling Class": Suddenly, Bravo was interrupting its shows with commercials.

Kearney, a worker at the Hewlett-Packard facility in Santa Rosa, Calif., fired off an immediate e-mail protest to the film and arts cable network, which previously had limited its commercial interruptions to between programs, not in them. But as a return letter from Bravo made clear, the commercials were there to stay, and Kearney, who says he used to watch Bravo for two to three hours every night, swears he hasn't turned on the channel since. "Sure, I miss it, but I'm not going to watch foreign films with commercials. I'll go rent them," he says.

Bravo says it got about 100 phone calls and e-mails and 50 letters in the first month after the ads were dropped in with no notice on Sept. 28. TV critics have written critical columns. Many disgruntled viewers followed through on their threats and cut back on their viewing of the channel, whose ratings took an immediate dive.

Since then, however, the ratings have drifted back up, although not to their previous levels. But more importantly, Bravo says, the increase in revenues brought by the ads has made it possible for the channel to double its programming budget. That means Bravo will be able to add more original fare, such as a new series, "The Awful Truth," from journalist-documentarian Michael Moore, that has garnered critical attention, and a four-part miniseries, "The Count of Monte Cristo," starring French actor Gerard Depardieu.

The channel is majority-owned by Cablevision Systems Corp., whose executives reportedly have been in talks this week with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer about a possible merger with the struggling film company. This comes on the heels of an acquisition offer from USA Networks Chairman Barry Diller, which Cablevision rebuffed. Kathleen Dore, president of Bravo Networks, declined to comment on any talks about future ownership of the channel, which, along with sister channel Independent Film Channel, would provide an attractive outlet for the film libraries of either USA or MGM.

As to the decision to turn to advertising as a way to fund new series and specials, Dore says: "We think we chose the right road."

Bravo isn't alone in its hunger for original programming. In an increasingly cluttered media environment, cable channels are more and more shunning reruns and cheap fare in favor of pricey original programming as a way to garner audience attention and secure coveted space on brimming cable systems. But the burgeoning number of channels means that prices and competition for programming, such as the movie packages that have been a staple of Bravo's prime-time lineup, have skyrocketed. That's putting pressure on channels to raise more revenues to fund the new shows. The Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau estimated last week that basic cable networks--those that air ads and are widely distributed--will invest $5.5 billion in programming in 1999, almost double what they spent in 1995.

Facing an Increase in Cost of Programming

Launched in 1980, Bravo started life as a two-night-per-week programming service featuring arts such as opera and ballet. It was meant to help make Escapade, an R-rated movie service that aired on the other five nights, acceptable to middle America, recalls Erica Gruen, who was one of Bravo's original employees and is now a cable and new media consultant in New York. Very quickly, however, the channels split, with Escapade sold and converted into the Playboy Channel. Bravo, which for its first eight years was commercial-free, added movies, and over the years was able to out-survive rivals, including arts channels attempted by CBS and NBC.

In 1988, Bravo, which as a pay-cable service had been deriving its revenues from high fees to cable operators, lowered its fees and switched to public television-like sponsorships to fund programming, which evolved into full ads between shows.

For most of the last decade, the economic model "worked pretty well," Dore says. But in the last couple of years, she says, competition for viewers and strong programming led to an increase in the cost of programming that was "dramatic and fairly sudden."

Where Bravo was once largely alone in focusing on the arts, it suddenly found itself competing for shows with start-ups such as Ovation. Movie packages, too, were suddenly very much in demand.

"At the end of the day, we felt the only way to really compete on an even playing field was to have a second revenue stream," in addition to the fees that cable systems pay, Dore says. "Our ability to deliver the kind of quality programming we wanted would be enhanced by advertising revenue more than the viewing experience would be diminished."

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