Stan E. Hubbard, chief executive of cable TV’s Reelz channel, sat quietly on stage in a Beverly Hills ballroom, his eyes fixed on the future of his network: a straight-shooting Georgia grandmother asking bemused reporters to fetch her a ham sandwich.
“Hollywood Hillbillies,” a reality sitcom in which a Southern-fried family takes on Tinseltown, may not be an early Emmy contender, but when it debuts Tuesday, it has the potential of doing for Reelz what Honey Boo Boo did for TLC and finally make the Minnesota-based Hubbard family a major player in the world of cable.
This was not the original plan.
When Reelz launched in 2006, executives promised a home for cinema lovers, with round-the-clock conversation about current and classic films. It didn’t work.
“I thought we could survive just doing movie talk,” Hubbard said. “What we found out is the world of television has evolved past that and we had to evolve with it.”
Hubbard Broadcasting shut down Reelz’s lavish Los Angeles studio and moved the headquarters to more affordable Albuquerque. Then it began acquiring shows and movies from Canada, as well as “orphans,” programming abandoned by other networks, most notably “Steven Seagal: Lawman,” which originally aired on A&E.
In 2011, when the History Channel opted not to air its first big miniseries, “The Kennedys,” Hubbard jumped at the opportunity. He launched a $10 million promotional campaign and got the drama on the air within eight weeks of purchasing it. The gamble paid off with the highest ratings in the network’s history and four Emmy wins.
“That really put us on the map,” said Hubbard, who is backing a sequel, “After Camelot,” airing later this year. “Consumers knew that we were now an acceptable choice.”
But don’t expect a slew of big-budget, star-studded projects on Reelz.
The Hubbard family may be ambitious — sister Ginny Morris oversees a growing radio empire while brother Rob Hubbard tends to the family’s TV stations, which include the Twin Cities’ oldest — but they’re also cautious and careful when it comes to programming. While other networks churn out scripted series that could cost as much as $5 million an episode, Hubbard plans to rely on nonscripted shows with budgets of $100,000 to $300,000.
That strategy has already paid off with “Beverly Hills Pawn,” a knockoff of the History Channel hit “Pawn Stars” that has tripled Reelz’s daytime ratings among viewers ages 25-54. In addition to “Hollywood Hillbillies,” the channel soon will launch “The Capones,” a trash-talking series about a very loud, very feisty family running a Chicago pizza joint, and “The Polka Kings,” featuring musicians committed to popularizing the accordion.
“ ‘Walking Dead’ was a huge monster hit right out of the gate, but it’s hard to handicap those,” Hubbard said. “If you’re an independent network, you can’t afford to chase those. It’s more important for us to hit solid doubles rather than either hitting a homer or striking out.”
That formula has worked well for other networks. Eight years ago, Discovery Communications, which oversees 14 channels, had a 3.5 percent share of overall cable viewership. Today, thanks to a heavier emphasis on reality series such as “Deadliest Catch,” the Discovery family has raised that share above 11 percent.
“It’s another example of a channel with a high-minded mission that realizes they have to pay the bills,” said Alan Sepinwall, a TV critic for the website HitFix and author of “The Revolution Was Televised,” an in-depth study of recent dramatic hits. “The channels try to find a balance between quality shows and trashier shows, but at a certain point, most of these channels just stop trying and fill the airwaves with more spinoffs.”
Sepinwall thinks Reelz’s biggest challenge this year will be to come up with an identity. If Discovery is largely about macho activities and Bravo specializes in catty conversation, what exactly will Reelz be known for?
“To be perfectly honest, if I wasn’t a TV critic and they didn’t send me stuff, I’m not sure I would know Reelz existed,” he said.
That may change if “Hillbillies” catches on, a very realistic scenario thanks to direct-as-dirt grandma Delores “Mema” Hughes and her highly opinionated grandson, Michael Kittrell, who became a viral sensation in 2010 when he slammed “South Park” for making fun of “gingers.” The show’s executive producer, Jonathan Koch, thinks it perfectly illustrates what Reelz wants to be known as: a family-friendly home for reality TV.
“Reelz’s sweet spot is that the characters are fun without slamming each other over the head with bottles. These will be families that, at the end of the day, love each other,” said Koch, whose credits include “The Kennedys,” “Being Mike Tyson” and “Beverly Hills Pawn.”
“The key is to make sure there’s enough on the network so that people develop a habit of watching on a regular basis.”
Reelz is certainly seeing growth. The channel, which debuted in 28 million homes, is available in 70 million. Hubbard, who also helps run the even more ratings-challenged Ovation network, predicts that Reelz will make money for the first time in 2014.
It’s even getting some famous fans. Oscar nominee Mark Wahlberg recently took Hubbard out for dinner in Los Angeles to rave about the network.
But Reelz is still not available on Cox Communications, the nation’s third largest cable provider. Hubbard is also fighting to get a better dial position in existing markets and to be more broadly available in high definition. In cities where those elements are in place, Reelz comes in as a top 40 cable network. In other markets, it ranks as low as No. 75.
A bona fide hit would go a long way in giving Reelz more bargaining power. That’s where “Mema” fits in — just as soon as she finishes her ham sandwich.
(30 minutes) premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on Reelz.