At this moment, I cannot tell you where I might find Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey network on my cable box. Same goes for Pivot, WGN America, BBC America and several other smaller networks which hope to woo discriminating audiences — the same audiences that have made channels like HBO, Showtime and AMC more popular than the broadcast networks.
That wooing in part comes in the form of new series, many of which were presented at the semi-annual Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles this week. The TCAs, a 16-day glut of discussions, panels and parties, is an opportunity for nearly every scripted and unscripted network out there to sell television critics on not just their upcoming shows, but their general brands — the trade-off is that the execs and talent who turn up are presenting to a pretty tough crowd.
The first week of TCAs belongs to cable networks like the ones mentioned above, as well as digital platforms like Hulu and Amazon. Cable week doesn’t quite have the stars and excitement of the broadcast sessions to come, but in terms of understanding the current TV landscape, it offered more insight into a basic fact: There is just way too much out there.
So the question becomes: How the hell do you stand out? During the TCAs, one move became the renewal of shows before they’ve even premiered: The third season of Pivot’s "Please Like Me" was announced a month prior to the second season premiere, and El Rey’s "Matador," which debuts July 15, will be getting two seasons sight unseen. It’s a massive show of confidence in both shows, the sort of strategy that in theory should get people to pay attention.
However, both shows are more likely to gain buzz because of the quality of their programming — "Please Like Me," created by and starring Australian comedian Josh Thomas, is an intimate heartfelt comedy about a young gay man that stands out thanks to Thomas’s unique point-of-view. Meanwhile, the entertaining "Matador" adds high-octane soccer action to a sexy undercover spy premise and compelling direction by Robert Rodriguez; it’s genuinely fun television.
Technically, El Rey, Pivot and the other ad-supported networks have it easy — they just have to get people to watch. For the pay cable channel Starz, the challenge is even more extreme, going beyond the simple need for tune-ins. Instead, Starz needs to convince people to add the service to their already heavy cable bills, hoping the draw of original series like (the admittedly intriguing) time travel romance "Outlander" and BBC import "The Missing."
According to my friendly neighborhood Time Warner Cable representative here in Los Angeles, adding Starz to my cable bill would be an additional $15 a month — the same price I pay every month for HBO, but without HBO’s pedigree.
Starz has the strategy of free preview weekends to introduce new viewers to its programming (which also includes an impressive line-up of movie channels). But for years after, it has eschewed using secondary streaming services to let viewers discover their shows — a deliberate choice, according to Starz CEO Chris Albrecht, who during Friday’s presentation said that the reason was to uphold "the promise of pay television."
"It would kind of make life potentially easier on the question of buzz. But there’s also something that’s, I think, pretty buzz-worthy about ‘you can only find it here,’" he added.
On balance, in comparison to all this, Amazon starts to look pretty good — cable is less ubiquitous by the year, but the Internet is everywhere. The company built on digital book sales presented its new slate of shows on Saturday, and while those shows vary in quality, the slate of talent is impressive, the premises unique and in theory the shows themselves a good deal easier to access via Amazon.com. Whether viewers (who Amazon execs frequently referred to as "customers") actually have the power it’s suggested they have over the selection of projects, there’s no denying that a framework is being built for an impressive roster of talent.
Hulu also has its advantages, though its original series often feel like they’re in tough competition for eyeballs with the other shows the site distributes. It’s notable the most high-profile element of Hulu’s Saturday presentation was not a well-received panel for upcoming "Real Housewives" parody "The Hotwives of Orlando," but the announcement that Hulu would be taking on the sacred duty of hosting "South Park."
We haven’t heard the last from cable at the TCAs, as the little brothers and sisters of the broadcast networks — Bravo, ABC Family, Showtime, etc — will present as part of giant conglomerate families. Those networks have the advantage of the bigger platforms to support their content, though, leaving the smaller networks to hope there’s still opportunity to gain some attention.
In order for buzz to happen, people have to watch. For some shows, though, it might work out.
(El Rey HD, on Time Warner Cable in Los Angeles, is channel 343.)