Hallmark Channel’s big announcement that it will partner with Martha Stewart to bring the icon’s homespun content to its network highlights a trend that has accelerated in recent months and years. The idea is that America loves celebrity, and that cable networks can create more brand awareness by latching on to top personalities that align with their brand messaging and audience. Of course, while these deals always look good on paper, they don’t always go smoothly: After all, the Hallmark-Stewart deal comes almost exactly two years after Discovery’s announcement that it would rebrand the sagging Discovery Health into The Oprah Winfrey Network. That effort still has yet to produce a channel, partly because of much-reported executive shuffles at OWN over the last year. OWN, which was originally set to launch by late 2009, is now slated go live in Jan 2011. Big personalities can also create transition issues in the broadcast world, which became obvious in recent weeks as the Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien debacle painfully and sometimes comically unfolded.
 
But love ‘em or hate ‘em, those celebrities are what drive eyeballs to television screens. And whether it’s courting them to rebrand a network, create programs or simply attach their famous faces and voices to shows, working with celebrities seems to have become a mainstay. At one point during this month’s Television Critics Association tour in L.A., Discovery Channel even found itself defending its choice of Winfrey as narrator for its upcoming “Life” series (produced with partner BBC). One critic pressed the network on why it replaced original voice work by the iconic Sir David Attenborough with Winfrey. The explanation was that Weaver brought something special and unique to the table. That’s fair enough. But it seems logical that Winfrey’s higher celebrity status and broader demographic appeal were prevailing factors. And should anyone fault Discovery for that? Probably not.
 
Cable networks are in the business of aggregating eyeballs. Period. In a tough advertising environment, celebrity hosts, producers, voices and the like can help “sell” a program—to both viewers and advertisers. That’s the game, and it’s not going to change any time soon. In fact, this is true even when advertising isn’t a factor. When non-ad supported HBO taps Rosie O’Donnell for a documentary on the changing American family (“A Family is a Family is a Family”) or Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks for “Band of Brothers” follow-on “The Pacific,” it knows that it will get more press attention (In fact, Rosie was just on “Good Morning America” this morning to talk about her HBO special). More press leads to more awareness, which leads to more viewers, which leads to more press, which leads to more nominations during awards season, which leads to more press, which leads to more viewers—and on and on and on.
 
Are there pitfalls to this need for celebrity firepower in everything cable networks do? Sure. Celebrities can be a royal pain. They demand top dollar and often want complete creative freedom, a combination that doesn’t necessarily lead to brilliance. And you have to wonder whether audiences and critics are more willing to give something a chance when it doesn’t have a big star attached. AMC’s “Mad Men” slowly grew into a hit without a single big name to trot out to the late night shows or the red carpet. In this case, cable didn’t try to mold a show around a star or group of stars; it cast the show with talented but relatively unknown actors and then let them shine. They’re all stars now. But they owe that to AMC, not the other way around. In the old days, that was cable’s role. These days, cable competes nearly head-to-head with big broadcast networks for talent and viewers. That isn’t a bad thing. But with great power comes great responsibility. And often… many headaches.

(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX)

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