Stacy Littlejohn worked her way up in network television like so many other writers and producers — she was a writers’ assistant on a Fox show, a joke writer on a CW show, a writer-producer on a half-hour ABC show. Now, for the first time, she is in charge of a one-hour drama, but it is not for any network she envisioned earlier in her career. It is for VH1, the older-skewing version of MTV.
Niche cable channels like VH1 that have depended solely on unscripted programs or repeats of others’ scripted programs are now trotting out their own comedies and dramas. Their aim is diversification. When Littlejohn’s drama, “Single Ladies,” has its premiere late this month, “it’ll distinguish VH1 amid their steady diet of reality shows,” she said.
Top-tier cable channels like USA and TBS have been creating dramas and sitcoms for more than a decade, but now relative small fry are doing the same. The shows are a way to stay competitive. “I think the bar has been raised in scripted,” said Jennifer Caserta, the general manager of IFC, the Independent Film Channel, which may be better known now for the sitcoms “Portlandia” and “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret.”
The trend toward more scripted shows has been evident at advertiser presentations by VH1, IFC and other channels this spring.
Cable channels are in the middle of the upfront advertising period, when they secure commitments for ad spending for the rest of the year. Channel owners like Scripps Networks and Viacom have forecast big gains in the upfront period this year because ratings continue to drift toward cable and away from broadcast, and the advertising marketplace is rebounding. Cable ad time, which is generally less expensive than broadcast ad time, is expected to grow faster than broadcast.
The cable and broadcast marketplaces “seem well positioned for truly strong results,” the News Corp. chief operating officer, Chase Carey, told investors last week.
For small channels, scripted shows are tentpoles that can be showcased for advertisers — and can command premium advertising rates. “More scripted shows, more incredible performances,” screamed a banner at the presentation last week by the cable channel BET, which has struck ratings gold with scripted comedies and is looking for its first drama project. Often, though not always, scripted programs are perceived to be safer harbors for advertisers than reality programs. Bhavana Smith, a vice president at Draftfcb, an advertising network owned by the Interpublic Group, called scripted a “more controlled environment” for brand integrations.
“Do you really want to rely on Snooki to do justice to your brand?,” she asked, referring to a “Jersey Shore” cast member.
At IFC, the Cheetos snack brand was featured on the most recent season of “Portlandia” and the Jameson whiskey brand was featured on “Todd Margaret.” Each companies’ advertising “is humorous in itself, so incorporating them into our scripted comedies was easy,” Caserta, the IFC general manager, said.
Simon Applebaum, who hosts the television podcast “Tomorrow Will Be Televised” and who has been attending cable upfront presentations all spring, noted in a blog post last month that production companies that have traditionally specialized in reality shows, like Endemol U.S.A. (“Big Brother”) and Bunim-Murray (“The Real World”), have started up scripted divisions.
“What’s more, if cable networks turn their projects down, they have alternative routes to go,” he wrote, noting that Netflix recently licensed its first original scripted show and that DirecTV had carried “Friday Night Lights” in a deal with NBC.
Ultimately, the hunger for richly detailed characters and robust plot development benefits writers, because ideas have to start somewhere.
“It has provided a lot of incredibly talented people with great creative outlets,” said Dana Walden, the chairman of the 20th Century Fox Television studio.
It also provides channels with a distraction from the monotonous hours of reality and repeats that otherwise fill up their schedules. As Littlejohn put it, “Single Ladies” can be a “jewel in the crown” for VH1.
“Single Ladies,” backed by Queen Latifah, is a comedic drama about three best friends. It is set in Atlanta, where production is wrapping up this month.
Littlejohn says working for VH1 feels precedent-setting. Because the channel has never had an hourlong scripted show before, “I’m creating the formula,” she said.
For budgetary reasons, episodes are being produced two at a time, more swiftly than Littlejohn is used to. “There’s less money on cable,” she acknowledged. But “less” is relative. “VH1 — bless their heart — they’re spending more money than they’ve ever spent, so I love them for this,” she said.