It’s commonly accepted that the middle is dropping out of movies — that there’s a widening gap between indies and $200 million tentpole releases, and that finding funding for mid-budget films, the type most likely to be aimed at a mainstream adult audience, has become increasingly difficult. One of the reasons that television is such an interesting place right now, that it’s experiencing a “golden age,” is that it’s catering to and quite probably benefiting from that need. The premium drama is at an all-time premium, and networks you’d never associate with hour-long scripted series are giving it a try — like History, who’s had serious ratings success with “Vikings,” or E!, who last year announced a development slate that included fiction projects from Phillip Noyce and Kevin Spacey.
The desire to have a watercooler show of one’s own with which to bolster one’s brand isn’t unique to networks — nontraditional outlets have gotten into the game, most prominently Netflix, with “House of Cards” and its other upcoming series. Crackle debuted the Milo Ventimiglia action serial “Chosen” in January, while Hulu’s been adding unscripted originals to its slate along with licensed international fare and Amazon’s in the process of greenlighting its first set of comedy pilots. And, set to premiere on April 3, the Thandie Newton-Marton Csokas crime series “Rogue” will be the first original drama from DirecTV, better known as a satellite service provider than as an outlet for its own programming.
“Rogue” isn’t a completely new venture for DirecTV. The network has been gathering content for its exclusive channel Audience Network for a while now — co-producing seasons three, four and five of “Friday Night Lights” with NBC in exchange for getting to air them first, taking over “Damages” for two more seasons after FX chose not to continue with the legal drama, and licensing international shows like gritty Australian crime saga “Underbelly” and Chloë Sevigny-as-transwoman assassin series “Hit & Miss.” The network also has exclusive music, sports and comedy programming, including the live “The Artie Lange Show.”
Still, the move into premium dramas is a tough one, as DirecTV’s SVP of Entertainment Chris Long admitted when talking about “Rogue” with Indiewire. Long, who oversaw the network’s taking a chance on “Rogue,” felt that the series, which came from E1 Entertainment and Momentum Entertainment Group and creator Matthew Parkhill (“Dot the I,” “The Caller”), represented the right opportunity for DirecTV to have a series genuinely its own — and as he put it, “There’s just so many shows you can save, and I didn’t want to be in that business anymore.” It was a decision prompted by research along with the recent direction the medium’s been taking. DirecTV looked at the demographics of their customer base and found that most of their subscribers between the ages of 35 and 54 watched premium dramas and edgy comedies. That’s where they started focusing their primetime programming.
“Look at what AMC did!” Long pointed out, noting the way that the cable network made the shift from being a movie channel to one known for its original programming thanks to “Broken Trail” and “Mad Men.” “That’s the plan — you build great TV, and it will be found.” Of course, for DirecTV that means also educating subscribers about the fact that it actually has this exclusive fare and that it’s in the business of original programming.
“We’re the only major provider that has a 24-hour premium network,” Long noted, though the Audience Network now manages to average between six to eight million viewers in a week. “We believe that premium dramas are something that help you differentiate yourself from others,” he said, explaining that they’re something that DirecTV can offer customers that competitors like Dish Network and cable providers don’t have access to.
DirecTV’s launch of “Rogue” is more reminiscent of Netflix’s move into original programming with “House of Cards” in that it’s a way of offering a unique hook that will hopefully hold onto subscribers faced with a range of entertainment services. That means that the company’s measures of success for the series are more about cultural impact than straightforward numbers — “Is it critically acclaimed, does it get a lot of buzz, do we have the same viewership that we had for ‘Friday Night Lights’ and ‘Damages’?” said Long. If, in the best case scenario, “Rogue” becomes the kind of immense success that gets compared to the likes of “Mad Men,” Long explained, it might not be enough to make someone swap out from Time Warner, “but it definitely keeps someone on our platform if they know they can’t get it anywhere else but DirecTV… I’ve got to keep creating shows that make you not want to leave.”
That’s why DirecTV and so many other outlets are incentivized to make premium dramas right now, to have programming people don’t want to miss and can only get from one place. It’s why Long told us, off the record, about another show DirecTV’s working toward a deal on that would be the first small screen project from a major name in indie film.
Of course, with people on the hunt for quality programming comes tougher competition: “If there’s more buyers, the price goes up.” Long admitted that, not being funded by affiliate fees or advertisers like the networks means that DirecTV’s price point is different, and that they “find diamonds in the rough.” That said, they hope to attract creators looking for the “long road, not the short game,” who see value in a dedicated audience of 20 million upscale subscribers — and with viewership becoming increasingly niche, that’s not such an unwelcome prospect.