US Cable Upfront Report

TBI has teamed with independent research specialist CableU to get under the skin of this year’s new cable shows. CableU’s analysts have run the rule over 30 key US ad-supported cable networks, based on their distribution levels, influence in the marketplace and their reliance on programming from independent television producers. Using data from the CableU Program Database and bespoke research, the team has looked at which networks are generating the most new shows, trends within genres and the overall trajectory of the channels in question.

Cable’s networks upfront presentations are filled with celebrities and circus acts, pomp and Powerpoint presentations and lots of free booze. But what they are really about is a chance for the networks to impress a captive audience of advertising’s biggest spenders with last year’s achievements, future goals, market positioning and most importantly, the programming in development for the upcoming broadcast year.

Upfront presentations finished up by mid-May and the books were closed by the end of June. Morgan Stanley analyst Benjamin Swinburne estimated cable’s take at $9.69 billion, up 4.3% versus last year.

Among the 30 networks closely analysed by CableU there were nearly 300 new series in development for this upfront season. With an average of 10 programmes per network, Syfy stood out with 35 titles while Bravo announced 20. Some networks like WE, FX and History stayed quiet, not wishing to “invite imitators.”

Many of the programmes do not get picked up, and four programmes announced by OWN were already cancelled by June 20th.  But a close look at the development slate reveals the direction in which the networks aspire; a map of the next broadcast year.

Strikingly, cable is branching out. Niche programming is defined by the network brand rather than by a specific genre of programming. And so TNT and USA finally jumped into the reality game. MTV and USA attempted scripted humor. E! strived to rebrand as a home of scripted dramas; the channel has announced a total of nine new dramas. BET tried its hand at both theatricals and dramas. A&E embraced scripted dramas again. Everyone now seems to have at least one competition show in the works. And they all stay within their carefully crafted brand identity.

New shows by genre

New cable series by genre (The CableU Program Database)

Other networks are happy with where they are, pushing out spin-offs and more programming in the same vein as the line-up that got them to where they are. Discovery, HGTV, TLC and truTV fit this bill.

The crime genre, which encompasses the law, justice, investigation and cops remains a popular theme, with its plotlines mirroring real-life, drama and big characters neatly built-in. However, crime is a story that is not told solely via procedural dramas, it is surfacing as competition, docu-drama, theatrical and even animated comedy in the case of CMT’s Bounty Hunter. Investigation Discovery has found much success with its steady stream of female-skewing investigation and crime-story docu-series, and has announced 12 new series.

Voyeur programming is also alive and well, although there seem to be more opportunities to observe the blue-collar lifestyle than the lifestyles of the rich and famous. This trend is courtesy of the recent popularity of hillbilly and redneck programming.

It looks like History Channel’s Hatfields & McCoys was a precursor to the slew of period dramas to come. History (Vikings), Lifetime (Cinnamon Girl), E! (Upstarts and The 400) and FX (The Americans) have each announced plans to develop a period piece. Some are traditional dramas and some are twisted history set in modern times, while others chronicle the recent past.

New cable series, comedy versus drama programming (The CableU Program Database)

The recent rush toward reality series located in the Louisiana, Texas and Alaska has waned. Much of the programming in development takes place in California (north and south) and New York and its outlying areas. If there is a hot spot emerging, it would be Boston or Washington, DC.

With a seemingly endless stream of original programming being poured into a limited primetime space, many networks have already spilled over into other day parts, most notably late night. The overriding theme of the season seems to be more. More original programming hours. More nights of original programming. More genres. More outrageous. All with the goal of achieving more viewing.



• A&E and its brands trying to “convey sheer size and scope of… company” with its impressive upfront presentation.

• The net is taking clear steps to distinguish it from competing networks, including TBS, Discovery, TLC, and truTV with an aggressive programming lineup of original series.

• A&E is launching several new programmes in both the reality and scripted genres.


Animal Planet

• APL is returning to a greater emphasis on natural history, with new series from network veteran Dave Salmoni and rookie survivalist Guy Grieve, as well as blue chip mini-series Wild Arabia and Wild Hawaii, which hope to build on the evergreen success of Wild Russia and similar library series.

• Sub-genres such as fishing, rural US-based series, and custom builds (such as Tanked) will all be expanding with new series and specials.



• After a year or more of the same programming, BET announced plans to expand out into theatricals and scripted drama in the coming year.

• More sitcoms have been a BET talking point, but no specific announcements have been made.



• As promised, no new Real Housewives programmes are in the works, but there is a long list of docu-series on the docket.

• Scripted drama is a new genre with 22 Birthdays and Blowing Sunshine; the programmes still feel like a Bravo docu-series.



• CMT is seeking to expand its success with “blue collar comedy” personalities with its first animated series featuring the voices of top blue collar comedians.

• Music is out, as other new series seek to build on inroads CMT made last year in the realm of reality series.


Comedy Central

• Scripted series dominate the upfront line-up, as the network seeks to build on the recent success of series such as Workaholics.


Discovery Channel

• Blue chip specials still a priority for Discovery with the announcement of natural-history special North America, as well as several others.
• Male-skewing science-based programming clearly still a priority with Robogeddon from Mark Burnett and James Cameron.


E! Entertainment

• E! appears to be embarking on an entirely new, scripted path.
• The network, which had previously been synonymous with reality TV, has only ordered two new non-scripted shows.
• E! is clearly striving to rebrand themselves as a home of scripted dramas: the channel has announced a whopping total of nine new dramas.
• This considerable shift in direction is being executed in a calculated attempt to elevate “the quality perception of the network.”
• The new scripted shows cover a diverse range of topics including a modern day retelling of Anne Boleyn and a period piece concerning the Vanderbilts.


Food Network

• Food Network has successfully established its brand identity and extended it throughout its programmng line-up.
• It is using its own homegrown talent to host many of its new programs $24 In 24 Hours, Bobby Flay’s Open House, The New Sandra Lee and Undercover Critics all use established Food Network personalities.
• The net tries a new format this year with Blind Dinner Party, a social experiment hosted by a comedian.



• FX chose to purposely keep its development slate under wraps, announcing only one programme for the upcoming season.
• The network has previously announced plans to continue to push out into both drama and comedy, as it snaps up the latest box-office hits.



• HGTV has chosen to stay on the same course.
• Most new programmes are essentially variations on the tried and true themes that have been working this past year
• The net continues to embrace its male audiences with extensions of Property Brothers and new programming Scoring the Deal, which revolves around the homes of professional athletes.



• No massive announcements as part of the AETN upfronts.
• CEO Abbe Raven says that A&E, History, and Lifetime will continue to “create genres instead of following them.”
• Coming off the most-watched year ever in 2011, History is broadening its expansion into scripted programming and miniseries.



• ID announced the largest slate of programming to date, with 12 news series and 22 returning titles.
• Female-skewing crime programs continue to be extremely successful for the network.



• Despite a recent rebranding, there are no hints of any pending changes on the network’s horizon
• Lifetime has a slew of scripted dramas and reality programmes in development that mesh with the network’s traditional themes.
• As expected, the network has commissioned a number of original Lifetime movies to be released throughout the year.
Cinnamon Girl, a scripted drama roughly based on Renée Zellweger’s early life, is perhaps the highest profile new show and has been referred to as a “game changer” by Lifetime President Nancy Dubuc.



• MTV continues to embrace its new scripted direction.
• The network announced two new scripted comedies (The Inbeweeners and Zach Stone is Gonna be Famous) to add new flavour to the traditionally reality based channel.
• Despite the recent foray into scripted programmes, reality remains MTV’s bread and butter.
• MTV is milking massive reality hit Jersey Shore: to date, two spinoffs exist with a third rumored to be in the works.
• Scripted shows aside, the network’s programming announcements remain very consistent with a traditional MTV slate; reality shows geared towards young adults.


National Geographic

• Nat Geo continues the transition from its traditional documentary specials and series, emphasising competition reality and docuseries starring quirky characters engaged and in odd and/or dangerous jobs.



• With no new Oprah-hosted series on the horizon, OWN will make do with other topics that have shown some success in the past: multiple-birth families, motivational personalities, and transformation.



• Oxygen made a commitment to a 50% increase in original programming, of which five new series that will join the 2012 schedule, and three more series in development.
• Oxygen’s new slate of original programming speaks to the network’s core demographic of young, female viewers. These series all dive into themes that “Gen O” women are obsessed with; friendship, dating, fashion and entertainment.
• Originals are the building blocks of their brand and their business. Moving forward with more nights of original series underscores their long term strategy to appeal to a very valuable audience.



• Comedy programming is still on the agenda, with the announcement of a new programme from the An Idiot Abroad team.
• Larger-scope series (more a la Discovery) are a priority, with the return of Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, and newcomer How the Earth Works.
• Quirky science, like Punkin Chunkin, Oddities and the new Surviving Zombies were announced.



• Spike is attempting to expand its male target demo from 18-34 to 18-49 by emphasising the 25-49 appeal of genres such as cooking, law enforcement and reality competition involving families, not just young men.



• Style just went underway with a new logo, brand, and will increase new programming by 25% this summer.
• The rebrand is designed to help the network own the style and beauty category on TV.
• Style, now part of an NBCUniversal portfolio heavy on women’s networks, looks to further differentiate itself — among viewers, advertisers and affiliates — in an increasingly crowded cable landscape.
• Much of Style’s success has been fueled by original programs like Tia & Tamera, Jerseylicious and Giuliana & Bill.



• Syfy announced the largest in-development slate with 35 series in the works.
• Paranormal programming remains the core theme.
• The net continues to test new genres in an attempt to broaden its scope.



• With six programmes announced at its upfront, TBS’ slate is smaller than usual.
• The network is hoping to follow in the footsteps of sister network TNT in moving into the reality genre in the form of competition-based programming, but is keeping scripted dramas for its sibling.



• TLC remains true to its unwavering dedication to reality programming.
• The network’s latest list of in-development shows strong echoes TLC’s previous programming.
• Once again, TLC will be dealing with the topics of dance, American subculture, and assorted competitive reality.
• Among the notable up and comers is Southie Pride, a Boston based reality show from the producers of Jersey Shore.



• TNT, again has an extensive slate of upfront programmes in development.
• The primary focus continues to be detective / crime based programming.
• The net is branching out into reality competition and into serialised programming.
• They are on record as trying to expand their originals season and the number of nights with original programming.
• While these kinds of announcements have been made before, they are particularly aggressive on this front this year.



• More traditional travel-based programming is taking priority over docusoap character-driven series.
•  Hosted/talent driven programmes still a priority for the network coming off the success of Man Vs. Food and No Reservations.
• Most of the series feature “the best” or the “most insane” or the “most tricked out” of whatever subject they are exploring.



• truTV has not deviated significantly from their tried and true formula of blue collar reality programmes and clip shows.
• The network’s recent upfront announcement is very much in keeping with truTV’s current array of shows. Hardcore Pawn: Fort Bragg and Container Wars will fit like a glove.
• Likewise, clip show Upload with Shaquille O’Neal is hardly a deviation from the norm.
• One point of interest is truTV’s newfound fondness for gameshows.
• After testing the waters with the acquired Wipeout, truTV has announced a handful of new gameshows.



• USA is one of the most aggressive networks in expanding into new programming genres.
Political Animals marks an entree into political satire, and there is a long list of scripted comedy and reality programming.
• The network is slowly but surely moving away from its blue skies formula with edgier and grittier programming taking place in cooler climes.



• VH1 continues to build on its recent success with reality series based on personalities related to the worlds of hip-hop and sports celebrities, as well as a new rehab series with long-time network personality Dr. Drew Pinsky.



• There is very little news coming from WEtv’s corner.
• After releasing a number of new reality titles in the past few months, the network has only announced one new programme in development.
• The sole WE tv show in the works is Cindi, a reality show centered around Cindi Lauper.
• The network continues to pursue reality shows based around outrageous individuals or families – Braxton Family Values being WEtv’s most recent brush with success.

Source: The CableU Program Database (

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