Last week, big news came for two outlets getting into the game of original programming: “Selma” director Ava DuVernay committed to writing and directing a dramatic series for Oprah Winfrey’s channel OWN, and the online platform Hulu cast “Trophy Wife” alum Michaela Watkins as the lead in “Casual,” the upcoming half-hour comedy from multi-Oscar nominee Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Up in the Air”).
For keen observers of the television landscape over the last five years, the flocking of major talent to unproven distributors is nothing new. David Fincher brought “House of Cards” to Netflix, which has since emerged as a top-tier Emmy player. The Sundance Channel suddenly materialized as a legitimate rival to HBO in the miniseries game, having won two Best Actress Golden Globes in a row. Amazon, not too long ago a website used mainly for ordering books, is now home to the best-reviewed new series of 2014, and the current holder of the Golden Globe for Best Comedy Series.
Countless outlets are trying to change their image as a way to gain in prominence and reputation. Some of them are completely new at original programming; some are transitioning towards something more ambitious; and some are simply shifting in focus. Listed below are five series that are leading the charge in transforming their respective network’s image. We ask: what have they done for their networks – how are they contributing to their respective evolutions? And, more importantly, what must they do now – what role do they play going forward in helping to shape the future of their network? Read on below…
What it’s done: Pivot has yet to celebrate a second birthday, and yet it’s already undergoing an identity transformation. Initially formulated to specifically target the 18-34 demographic, the young network has switched gears by unveiling a sprawling murder mystery with a cast more likely to appeal to a senior citizen than a college student. Set in Iceland and evoking “Twin Peaks” to some degree, the Sky Atlantic co-production “Fortitude” has generated buzz with its gorgeous setting and top-notch cast (which includes, among others, Michael Gambon, Stanley Tucci and “The Leftovers” standout Christopher Eccleston), and has also become a modest critical hit. If Pivot is truly shifting in focus with a desire to branch out in appeal and success, “Fortitude” has put them on that path as a well-received piece of ambitious dramatic storytelling.
What it needs to do: Attract viewers. “Fortitude” was a substantial commercial hit across the Atlantic, but Pivot’s obscure place in the television landscape has expectedly prevented the series from really making waves stateside. If the network is committed to breaking away from its “niche” label and towards something more widely-known and acknowledged, “Fortitude” must prove that the journey is worth it. And that comes from, more than anything else, proof that there’s a demand for Pivot to produce this kind of television.
What it’s done: Critics have been favorable to Cinemax’s previous original offerings, which have ranged from the action-packed (“Hunted,” “Strike Back”) to the deliciously campy (“Banshee”). But the HBO offshoot appeared content with producing popular entertainment, and not veering into more artistically-challenging territory. “The Knick” rather aggressively changed that perception, however, with Oscar-nominated Clive Owen starring in the leading role and Oscar-winning Steven Soderbergh attached to helm the first season in its entirety. Soderbergh’s bold directorial work kept chatter around the series loud and consistent, while strong reviews propelled Cinemax to its first Golden Globe and Writers Guild of America (WGA) nominations. Not only has “The Knick” started a conversation about Cinemax’s transition from popcorn to prestige original programming, but the work of Owen and Soderbergh has contributed significantly to ongoing discussions about the blurring of the line between film and television.
What it needs to do: Score Emmy nominations. Like it or not, recognition from the Television Academy is a real sign of impact – the awards success of Netflix’s cultural phenomena “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black” indicates as much. It can be difficult for TV networks to build in esteem and reputation when in a transitional phase – Starz’s attempted foray into Emmy-worthy programming failed with “Boss” (not even Kelsey Grammer could get a nomination) and “Magic City” – and, thus, it would be a tremendous step forward for Cinemax if “The Knick” could make a real dent at next year’s Emmys.
“Manhattan” (WGN America)
What it’s done: After entering into original programming with the commercially-successful but critically-derided “Salem,” “Manhattan” has introduced legitimacy and prestige to WGN America. Emmy-winning veteran Thomas Schlamme (“The West Wing”) and “Masters of Sex” scribe Sam Shaw brought a thematically-potent and historically-rich premise – the making of the atomic bomb – to a network best known for broadcasting Chicago Cubs games, and delivered in execution. The debut season earned solid reviews (our own Liz Shannon Miller called it a “well-made and fascinating period drama”) and was praised for the performances of its established cast, in particular John Benjamin Hickey and Olivia Williams. With a collection of respected actors, writers and directors putting out well-received work, “Manhattan” has proven that WGN is a place where creativity can thrive.
What it needs to do: Get the critics paying attention. Though “Manhattan” was a pleasant surprise for many, the series all but disappeared in the broader conversation after premiering. In fact, as far as weekly write-ups were concerned, no one was covering the show except for the science-focused website Popular Mechanics. As the season came to a close, publications started lobbying for the show and putting its name out there: James Poniewozik of Time called it “the TV season’s secret weapon,” while Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff said it grew “from a promising little period drama into a seriously addicting show.” WGN has renewed “Manhattan” for a second season, and it needs to build on this momentum and get critics talking in larger numbers.
What it’s done: Beautifully lensed, location-specific and spectacularly performed drama has quickly come to characterize Sundance programming, including the Golden Globe-winning miniseries “Top of the Lake” and “The Honorable Woman.” But you’d think the network was exclusively in the miniseries business if not for “Rectify,” which is set for a quiet return for a third season. The Georgia-set drama has earned heaps of critical praise, including “Best of the Year” mentions in 2014 from Entertainment Weekly, The Huffington Post, Hitfix and others. Sundance still doesn’t draw substantial viewership numbers – that and the glacial pacing of “Rectify” is enough to keep it out of the Emmy conversation entirely – but “Rectify” has been a constant for the network, earning excellent reviews and kudos from smaller groups like the Television Critics Association and the WGA. Sundance has become a gold standard for the miniseries and the import (“The Returned”), but as far as original series are concerned, “Rectify” has been a fine, if somewhat lonely, representative.
What it needs to do: Stick around. “Rectify,” like most Sundance programming, lacks the commercial chops necessary to really break out, and it premiered before the channel was on anyone’s radar. But if it can steadily build and continue to attract critics for a few more years, that may help drive visibility towards the network’s future series offerings. Critics will pay attention and, if the product is good enough, advocate with greater success – because given what Sundance has churned out in the past few years, it’s safe to say that its executives know what they’re doing, quality-wise.
What it’s done: Should we make a list? Amazon’s decision to follow in Netflix’s footsteps by getting in the original series business seemed suspect to say the least, and their first round of content – comedies “Alpha House” and “Betas” – didn’t really register. But “Transparent” landed with a thud, and subsequent talk about its quality, its originality and its importance ranged on deafening. To say that Jill Soloway’s family tragicomedy has legitimized the Amazon brand would be an understatement; the series has had an enormous impact not only on its network, but also on the transgender community that it depicts with sensitivity and depth. “Transparent” feels groundbreaking for all sorts of reasons (you can read our interview with transgender activist Jen Richards, who calls it TV’s “best depiction of a family going through a parent’s transition”), and would up the cache of any network. That it’s bringing Golden Globes, critical raves and ultimately national attention to a brand new player in Amazon is about as good as it gets.
What it needs to do: Keep it up. The launch of “Transparent” went just about perfectly, and has without question established Amazon as a producer of quality, specific programming. Going into the show’s second season, can it maintain the buzz and the critical acclaim? That’s the essential question for Amazon, and “Transparent,” going forward. This is the kind of anchor Amazon needs to build around in the years to come.