Sharenow explained that Lifetime is also hedging its investments by diversifying its formats. Producing a reality show such as “Dance Moms” comes at a fraction of the cost to produce a scripted series such as “Army Wives.”
A scripted series can pencil in at $1 million per episode, whereas reality shows come at 10 to 20 percent of that cost, estimates Williamson, of Central Michigan. Cable networks are taking that expense into consideration as they wade into dramas and sitcoms.
Bravo, for its part, is starting out with two scripted shows due out next year. The network that built the “Housewives” franchise is sticking to its lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-naughty theme. One show, “22 Birthdays,” follows wealthy families as they throw lavish parties, while “Blowing Sunshine” looks at the interactions of staff members and patients at a private rehab center.
“The best brands have a great portfolio of different types of experiences,” said Jerry Leo, executive vice president of program strategy and production for Bravo. “We’re strong now with six nights of original programming and it just made sense to take it to the next level. We’re close to the top 10 and believe scripted [shows] will catapult us there.”
Leo said Bravo never aimed to be a reality network; it just wanted to garner a strong enough following to justify the cost of scripted programming. After six years of growth, he said the company has the financial wherewithal to endure the risk of bankrolling a fictional series.
“Scripted is a natural fit for Bravo because the brand lends itself to drama,” said Gordon of MagnaGlobal. “It’s a little bit harder to think of a scripted series that would fit the TLC brand.”
It’s not like TLC hasn’t dabbled in scripted programming in the past, but those attempts have mainly been reenactments in documentaries.
“We are always open to exploring different formats, as long as they fit our brand promise,” Winter said. “We just don’t have anything in the works at present.”
For now, TLC plans to build upon its successful franchises. Winters said the network is expanding its Friday night block of wedding shows to Thursday, with two hours of “Four Weddings,” a bride competition. The network is also rolling out three more wedding shows next year, including “Maids of Dishonor,” a show about — you guessed it — troublesome maids of honor.
Tried and true
While it has been years since TLC has cracked the top 10 cable network ranks, Nielsen routinely lists several of its shows, including “Long Island Medium” and “Say Yes to the Dress,” as top prime-time cable programs among women.
Those shows have helped boost ad revenue, which SNL Kagan pegs at about $323 million, up from $297.4 million at the end of 2011. The channel airs in 99 million homes in the United States and 227 million abroad.
“TLC is parked in an area that is pretty versatile, has lots of potential and possibility for a wide audience,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “Even though they are a specialized network, they are specializing in an area that’s viable.”
Whether that area remains viable for much longer is hard to tell as viewers are fickle. They may tune in for three wedding shows, but six? Titillating often turns into tawdry, and repetition gets . . . well, repetitive.
Everist of Campbell Mithun says specialization may soon lose its value to advertisers.
“Viewership is fragmenting, and as things get more fragmented you can have a proliferation of more niche properties. The question becomes can they make money?” he said. “At some point, you’re going to get so fragmented that the audience reach you have becomes less valuable to general market advertisers.”
If TLC were to hit a long, dry spell with its shows, Thompson imagines the network may feel compelled to vary its formats. Switching up its tried-and-true formula will also depend on whether viewers reach a saturation point for reality TV.