Pivot just couldn’t pivot fast enough.
The movie’s title is an appropriate farewell for Pivot, and perhaps also serves as a message for the cable industry in general – as more networks face an uncertain future in the wake of so-called “skinny bundles” (cable packages with fewer channels) and the growth of cord-cutting.
“Some of the cable networks are pulling in very small audiences,” says one production chief whose company produced for Pivot. “How long do you stick with it?”
For Participant Media, it was just over three years. IndieWire spoke with past and present Pivot insiders about the network’s brief run, and the factors that led to its quick demise – although no one wanted to speak on the record, for various reasons (including non-disclosure agreements). Participant and Pivot declined to comment for this article.
The company is believed to have invested around $200 million into the enterprise, starting in 2012, and at the end had a staff of around 80 running the network. Participant reportedly spent about $100 million to acquire Documentary Channel and Halogen TV, in order to build enough distribution in time for its launch on Aug. 1, 2013, in 40 million homes.
The channel’s initial plan was ambitious: 300 hours of original programming in its first year, including a live nightly talk show (“TakePart Live”), the U.S. run of Australian scripted series “Please Like Me” and the performance show “HitRECord on TV,” hosted by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Evan Shapiro, who now runs Seeso as NBCUniversal’s executive vice president of digital enterprises, launched Pivot as its president. “We are a next generation television network for the new, greatest generation, millennials,” he told reporters at Pivot’s Television Critics Association press tour unveiling in 2013. “Where other people may see navel gazing, entitled narcissists, we have a hero generation ready to take on the challenges that are present in the world, challenges they didn’t create. We have an innate respect for the optimism and the intelligence of our audience in this generation. And that, in turn, informs every moment of our programming. We will work with the most talented artists across a wide spectrum of TV formats and genres. We will create stories that entertain, spark conversation, and stir our community into action.”
But even in 2013, it was clear millennials weren’t interested in traditional linear TV, even if Pivot’s intentions were noble. Internally, Participant staffers debated the best distribution option for Pivot, and insiders confirm that even in 2012 (right as the Netflix and over-the-top revolution was getting underway), there was internal discussion about programming Pivot as an on-demand OTT app, or finding a partner like Xbox and avoiding linear cable all together. But Pivot was perhaps a year or two ahead of its time.
“It sounds like a good idea now, but Netflix was the only real player in town at that point,” said one insider. Ultimately, the Participant powers-that-be couldn’t resist the cachet of owning a bonafide cable network, which on paper looks much more impressive than simply launching a new digital site. “It’s the same reason why a 55-year-old man buys a sports car,” quipped one exec. (Pivot did launch with robust on-demand offerings, keeping in mind how its audience watched TV.)
The idea of a traditional channel, of course, is to launch with reach. It’s the excuse that Vice is currently using in putting Viceland on a linear cable outlet \(formerly H2), although – like Pivot – its millennial target won’t be watching that programming on a TV screen. Muses an exec: “You may have all these homes, but how many people are actually watching?”
Viceland, at least, is a part of the A+E Television Networks suite of networks, and is sold as part of a package. Insiders said Participant CEO Jeff Skoll’s initial goal included eventually purchasing other channels, so that Pivot could also offer a bit more value to MVPDs. But that never materialized, and Pivot struggled to find mass as a standalone.
An Inconvenient Truth
But there was perhaps a larger issue at hand: Pivot insiders admitted they were frustrated by Participant’s shifting strategy for Pivot under former CEO Jim Berk. “They struggled to find the right model from the very beginning,” one source said.
Another said Berk wasn’t patient when audiences didn’t grow fast enough. “Despite the fact that we were doing programming that people really seemed to respond to, and the viewership was headed in the right direction, it was nowhere near where it ultimately needed to be. Rather than adjust the plan, the senior management decided, ‘We don’t know what we want to do.'”
Said one insider: “When you look at the black hole that Pivot kind of became, it’s driven by the fact that very few people had all the information at any given time other than Jim… [he] literally would start rethinking the decisions the second we said, ‘OK, let’s go.”
A 2015 Variety profile of Skoll backed up those claims. Wrote the trade: “Several people who worked for the channel say privately in interviews that Participant CEO Berk shifted strategy frequently and fiddled with individual programs. They complain that his micromanagement particularly hobbled ‘TakePart Live,’ the nightly public-affairs talker positioned as a network flagship. ‘There was endless tinkering, and it never had an opportunity to find its feet,’ says one individual connected with the program.”
Participant was at a crossroads at the same time: “They straddled the fence between for-profit and non-profit, between mission-driven and commercial, between being a finance enterprise and an operating company, between a practical company and a digital company,” an insider said.
As Pivot’s mission shifted, Shapiro left the company in 2014, and Kent Rees took over as general manager. Programming changes included the cancellation of “TakePart Live” at the end of 2014. Then last year, Skoll ordered a strategic review of the entire company, which led to Berk’s exit. David Linde was hired to replace Berk in October 2015.
Meanwhile, in that same Variety interview, Skoll also acknowledged that Participant needed to make some hard decisions on whether to keep Pivot afloat. How many people were watching Pivot isn’t clear to outsiders, as the network never subscribed to Nielsen ratings – but the audience was believed to be minuscule, and didn’t pace to expectations.
According to insiders, Participant began to look at potential partnerships for the channel, or even outright selling it. The company is believed to have held substantial conversations with Ion Media Networks, which owns TV stations and digital channels, but nothing resulted from those talks. (Ion didn’t return a request for comment.)
Participant insiders hinted that there were no takers, and perhaps it was better to take a write-down on the channel than sell it at a loss. But others are skeptical: “Why they chose not to sell it is completely beyond me,” a source said. “I know at least three to four people who were interested, and they wouldn’t even have conversations with them.”
A Most Violent Year
Finally, on August 17, Participant announced the wholesale shutdown of Pivot. “As the media landscape changes, we have been evaluating how we fulfill our mission to entertain and inspire social action around the world’s most pressing issues,” Linde said in the press release. “That process has led us to the decision to move away from owning and operating a cable network. While this conclusion was not an easy one, it is ultimately in the best interest of all our stakeholders, and allows us to allocate more resources toward the production of compelling content across all platforms.”
Said one Pivot producer: “Quite frankly, literally two days before the shut down, we were having conversations about more episodes. So I think most of them were caught completely off guard.”
But at the same time, the writing was clearly on the wall, according to another producer: “My assumption is their drive to approach all content from a socially relevant point to help make a change in society didn’t align with ratings or entertainment, so it’s hard to sustain that,” he said. “That’s my guess from some execs I met with about a month before they called it quits who told me that no one knew which way was up there.”
Pivot, in some ways, followed the same path as the original conceit for Current TV, which was also a stand-alone property that launched with socially conscious and uplifting fare targeting millennials. Current eventually morphed into a news opinion channel, before being sold to Al Jazeera for around $500 million in 2013.
But that was 2013. By 2016, the market for a stand-alone cable network has cooled off. Coincidentally, Al Jazeera America launched the same month as Pivot in 2013, with some of the same lofty goals. And it, too, folded this year – also without any buyers. As Pivot goes dark, it was available in around 50 million homes; Variety recently reported SNL Kagan figures that Pivot generated about $62 million in revenue in 2015, and was near break-even.
Out of the Dark
Participant has now shifted its focus solely to production, recently acquiring Rainn Wilson’s socially conscious company SoulPancake (which previously had a TV deal at Pivot). At the Mipcom TV conference in Cannes, Linde also revealed that the company is creating a scripted series with the producers of “Spotlight” set in the world of journalism, as well as the unscripted high school series “America to Me,” from Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”).
According to Participant insiders, the moves are a part of the company’s plan to become “platform agnostic. We’re focusing on becoming a content company and much less on any version of distribution exclusivity.” Rees will remain with the company, and continue to oversee the Pivot shutdown while focusing on other Participant TV matters.
Beasts of No Nation
As for existing Pivot content, Participant is working with producers on finding new homes for unaired shows and episodes. But the company declined comment, including where the fourth season of “Please Like Me” will air. The show was supposed to return to Pivot on Nov. 10; the show’s first three seasons are available on Hulu.
Meanwhile, projects in development have also been cleared to find a new home elsewhere.
“We had a great working experience with them,” a producer said of Pivot’s programming team, which included Rees, original programming executive vice president Belisa Balaban, senior vice president Christy Thornton and acquisitions executive vice president Jennie Morris. “They were honorable and did what they said they were going to do. They’ve not been obstructionist.”
Good Night, and Good Luck
Pivot’s legacy also includes the U.K. drama “Fortitude,” the docuseries “Jersey Strong,” and the reality series “Human Resources.” “We took less salaries, we made great sacrifices to do this. You should talk about how wonderful those people were,” an insider said.
Added a former staffer: “This move into more of a television production company seems more closely aligned with what Jeff Skoll is comfortable with. He loves the internet, he loves production. Operating an ongoing platform is not necessarily something that he has the appetite for, it seems, now.”