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Cable TV's search for identity

December 28, 2007|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

A few years ago, it looked like Court TV was all about courtrooms, FX Network was for tough guys, and AMC ran only movies. In the coming months, however, cable TV viewers will start to see things change.

Court TV will become TruTV. FX ads will explain "There is no box" its shows fit into. And AMC will launch its third original scripted program.

As cable TV has exploded into hundreds of channels with countless programs, networks must grow increasingly sophisticated to stand out amid the competition, develop an identity and maintain their double-digit annual growth. Some, such as Court TV, have relied as much on psychographics as demographics to figure out who their audience is and how to reach potential viewers. FX spent tens of millions of dollars to roll out its ad campaign for the new tag line.

The idea, said John Landgraf, president and general manager of FX Networks, is to create a "sense of brand, not only shows." He said viewers have stayed with HBO despite the loss of its signature shows ("The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City") and its failed new efforts ("John From Cincinnati") because they were attached to a sense of quality that HBO had successfully created in its brand ("It's not TV. It's HBO."). FX wants viewers to see a common sensibility and quality in its schedule of diverse shows, he said.

Most cable networks with familiar brands will be staying the course. Characters will still be welcome at USA. TNT still knows drama.

It takes a long time to build a brand name, and cable networks, whose shows are less expensive than broadcast networks, are used to moving fast, according to Derek Bane, a senior analyst at SNL Kagan, a television research firm. "I don't know how much weight tag-line branding has," he said. "People look for good programming. A lot of it is good advertising and good word of mouth. I don't think a lot of people tune in to a channel because of a great tag line," he said.

Further complicating the new branding efforts is the uncertainty of programming because of the current writers strike and the digital revolution.

Here's a sampling of what viewers can expect on basic cable in 2008:

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AMC

AMC once called itself "Television for People Who Love Movies." Now it's "The Future of Classic."

"What we're looking to do is combine the best movies with high-end scripted originals," said general manager and executive vice president Charlie Collier.

The movie channel tested the waters for original programming two years ago with "Broken Trail," an Emmy-winning miniseries. Next came last summer's "Mad Men," a Golden Globe-nominated drama. On Jan. 20, the network will launch "Breaking Bad," a series about a "repressed everyman" diagnosed with a fatal illness, Collier said.

Created by writer Vince Gilligan ("The X-Files"), "Breaking Bad" stars Emmy-nominated actor Bryan Cranston ("Malcolm in the Middle") as a chemistry teacher who becomes a manufacturer of crystal meth. Its producer, Mark Johnson, and cinematographer John Toll have won Oscars. "This is as close as you can get to film on television," Collier said.

Collier said he'd like AMC, like HBO, to be "creator-friendly," a network where writers can bring smart projects they're passionate about and know they will be produced in a high-quality, cinematic way. "We're working with a lot of Hollywood talent," he said. He said classic movies will also be curated and shown alongside individual projects to create an environment of quality rather than just fill space. For instance, he said "Goodfellas" was programmed to precede "Mad Men" since both had cinematic qualities and told stories about "a group of men to whom the rules do not apply."

Other upcoming series and miniseries in development have been stalled during the writers strike. "Breaking Bad," was kept to a seven-episode arc plus the pilot. If the strike is resolved early in the year, "Mad Men" will begin to film Season 2 and "we'll be able to keep the cadence going," he said.

In any case, he added, AMC has a core of classic movies. "If you have a core, you have a foundation for a house. It's obviously architecturally solid," he said.

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FX

The new spots for FX announcing its tag line "There is no box," will tell you what it is not. "Nip/Tuck" for instance isn't about miracle cures, "Rescue Me" isn't about heroes, "Damages" isn't about law, or order, and "Dirt" isn't about perfect men or good girls.

Landgraf said he put off a branding campaign during the years that its three top shows ("Rescue Me," "Nip/Tuck" and "The Shield") featured white, male protagonists in their 40s. "If we had branded at that time, I felt it was tantamount to hanging up a sign that said you [other] people are not welcome." With female leads in "Dirt," "The Riches" and "Damages," he said the schedule appealed to older and younger men and women. "But they were united by a common psychographic," he said. "This sense of cliche-defying, boundary-busting originality."

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