DirecTV’s Audience Network is banking a lot on its 1st homegrown original series “Rogue,” starring Thandie Newton. And you certainly don’t need to tell that to svp, DirecTV Entertainment Chris Long, who greenlit and helped develop the 10-ep crime thriller that tracks a female cop who gets in deep with a crime syndicate. If this one goes well, DirecTV plans to develop up to 4 more shows over the next 3 years. We caught up with Long to ask him how he’s handling the pressure—and why the satcaster wants to amp up originals on its Audience Network.
CableFAX: How much is riding on the success of this show?
CL: There’s a lot riding on it in the sense that we went to our board of directors and said, ‘Instead of us finding an established show, let’s build one from the ground up on our own. Let us produce it and show you that it can be done, that we have the people here who can do it’… I felt comfortable going to our CEO and explaining to him that this is the next iteration of how we’re going to grow as a network. If we produce a great show, people will find it. I kept using the example of “Downton Abbey” to him because I don’t know if I ever could tell you what channel PBS was one before Downton Abbey. But I found it, it’s great and I’m excited. So I think there’s a lot riding on it. But will it make or break the network? Absolutely not. It definitely will make or break the appetite to do more originals if this one doesn’t do as well as we’d like.
CableFAX: Rogue pushes the envelope on sex and violence. Does that mean you’re evolving audience network into more of a premium net like HBO?
CL: Probably more like an HBO, but I don’t have a tenth of their budget. So it’s hard to compare us to them because I can’t really compete with them when it comes to money they spend. I mean, they’ll spend $20 million or $30 million on developing shows that might not even make it to air. That’s difficult to compete with, so we need to make smart choices and have room for developing shows—and whatever we’re developing, we’re greenlighting to 10 episodes. I would see kind of like a Starz model, where Chris [Albrecht] has done things like “Magic City” and now getting more into the epics or period pieces. Yes, more of the premium channel feel would be a good comparison. I don’t know if I could ever compete with them. And we distribute them, so I’m not sure we’re really trying to compete with them. We’re just trying to give our customers something else to resonate for them to not leave the platform… It’s part of building up enough inertia to keep them on the platform.
CableFAX: Would a few hit shows even help attract new subscribers to DirecTV?
CL: I think it becomes one of those buzzes. Like on Wed night, if the Twittersphere starts blowing up and saying “Oh my God, this is a great show,” and it just snowballed, then I think it could be. But because we’re only in 20 million homes, I’m not sure how much influence that could make on someone. I think if I have 4 or 5 of these kind of shows, I think that could be an acquisition play. But right now, I think it’s more of a retention play for the company. It’s very difficult. There’s only one “Sopranos” that got everyone to go to HBO.
CableFAX: So how do you measure success on this?
CL: We have DIRECTView with people linked to our boxes. We absolutely know what they’re watching. So there’s a number in our head that we know we’re looking for, comparable to “Friday Night Lights” and “Damages.” A lot of people are like, “Well, why would you compare it to that. It’s an unknown property.” And I’m like, “Because I have to compare it something.” And to me, that’s a good benchmark for success.
CableFAX: Do you try to have an Audience Network “theme” to your shows? Like crime or action or epic, etc? Or do you just look for a variety of good projects?
CL: In terms of being thematic, we want to make very provocative shows that people are feeling like, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything on television before.” Last year we did a show called “Hit and Miss” with Chloe Sevigny where she was a transgender character. It was something not a lot of people were willing to take a chance on. I think those are the type of stories we’re looking for—the type of thing that no one else would take chances on. So I guess it’s the out-of-the-box ideas… It’s hard to categorize it. I’d like to say that it’s good television… I think the media probably could make up a better thematic than I could aspire to.
CableFAX: Would you continue to pick up shows that are on the ropes or looking to leave another network—or are you wholly focused on original development now?
CL: It’s tough because there’s a reason they’re getting cancelled. I don’t think Friday Night Lights was going to get cancelled. I think that [then NBC chief Ben Silverman] was just looking for a better business model because it was a great show, but it was expensive. So he came up with this great idea, and it really helped us get on the map. With Damages, FX was probably going to cancel it, but in my mind after 3 years it still had legs. So a show like that, I’m not going to say no to anything. But I’d rather build stuff from the ground up and own it, like we own 50% of Rogue. We obviously have some ROI coming back to us, and with those kind of shows it’s usually a straight licensing deal where I have no ownership of the show, so I really have no ROI. So I think that it’s depending on the show and the star power in it. I’m not really going to say no to anything right now.