Former National Geographic Channel chief Steve Schiffman leads the latest entrant into the competitive US true crime market, Justice Network, which launched on US multicast on January 20. He tells TBI about the channel’s launch, the proposition and buying wants and needs
TBI: What makes the channel’s proposition unique?
SS: An important difference that makes us unique compared with all other television channels is that we are devoting 90 seconds an hour, on the hour, every hour, 365 days a year [to social justice causes]. There will be seconds dedicating to catching a ‘bad guy of the week’, 30 seconds to help identify a missing child, and a 30-second family safety tip often with a seasonal focus. We are going to be making a library of these that we will rotate every week, maybe doing it more frequently for missing kids and safety tips. We’re literally putting our money where our mouth is by taking inventory away every hour.
TBI: What impact are you hoping to have with this strategy?
SS: Coming from National Geographic Channel, which was a mission-based channel, I’m proud Justice Network is launching as a mission-based channel. Yes, we will have entertaining programmes from one of the best libraries out there, but it also has a real societal purpose that is providing something for the communities we launch in.
TBI: Does this play into your original content strategy?
SS: With every few exceptions – I can recall one other from the past – no multicast channels produce original content. We feel that it will make a difference. We’re taking a page from what America’s Most Wanted did at 9pm on Saturday nights on Fox, but doing it 24/7.
TBI: Tell us about the programming offer.
SS: The guts of our library from launch will be from the Turner library – 450 hours. We also have Alaska State Troopers from a network I’m quite familiar with: National Geographic Channel. That’s a show, ironically, I commissioned in the first place. We’re going to have close to 600 hours – how many multicast channels have that at launch? The common denominator [with other channels] is what makes crime and investigation, mystery factual entertainment television so sticky: great storytelling. The whodunit element is almost addictive, like caramel popcorn.
TBI: Why launch in the multicast space?
SS: The multicast space has a lot of momentum, and is a really interesting way to deliver good content to underserved consumers that can’t afford pay television.
TBI: Despite that, the crime space is very crowded. Can you compete?
SS: Globally, there are lots of channels that focus on the crime and investigation space. In the American market that we’re competing in – at least initially – there’s really only one channel of consequence competing, Investigation Discovery, that is branded as ‘all crime, all the time’.
I’m a huge fan of ID. The management has done an amazing job of branding and commissioning content, and their success and growth speaks for itself, both in impression and distribution. Frankly, they are inspiring, and I don’t view them so much as a direct competitor as an inspiration. To get ID, you have to pay for the cable or satellite bundle. With our channel you do not – that is a huge difference. There are so many varieties of crime programming, and our audience is going to be different to ID’s, for example. We’re going to have cable carriage, but we’ll be in the hinterlands, whereas ID is in non-fiction tier. I don’t think it will be cannibalistic.
TBI: What stories work well on your channel?
SS: We love series that have great storytelling. What we’re looking for is storytelling that really grabs the viewer, makes them intensely interested in characters, and is almost an addictive programming experience. John [Ford, former Discovery Channel president and Justice Network’s programming chief] and I have clarity over our brand. We’re not going to have gameshows or I Love Lucy. It’s going to be mystery, crime, investigation and things of that nature. When you are acquiring, you are looking at what is working on the channel already.
TBI: Where does the channel skew?
SS: We are definitely skewing towards women. We are looking typically at 25-54 demo, US$50,000 salary, high school and college… If you look at the demos around the world that watch the CSI and Law and Order franchise and those that watch factual entertainment [those factors are common]. There’s a real clarity with the demo.
TBI: So the genre is as important as the programming brands, in a sense?
SS: When I was greenlighting 300 or 400 hours of content a year [at Nat Geo], it is really important to understand formatting. When you are a well-branded channel with clarity about what you stand for, consumers will come in and see if there is a show that is consistent with their understanding of your channel. Cable channels have been very successful with this by creating very defined channels over the years. When a consumer understands what the channel is, the programming brands become less important. There are breakout hits, of course, which are the exception.
TBI: How will you approach buying?
SS: We’re well financed by Lonnie Cooper, a founder of Bounce TV, and we are budgeted to look at more additional content. John Ford and I will principally make those decisions. We’re a team with experience in this field.
TBI: What rights are you seeking at this stage?
SS: The rights we’re asking for are US-only, but if our channel resonates the way I think it is going to, international expansion is something I am certainly open to. But we’ve launched this January as an embryo, and that is akin to college. As CEO, it’s my job to think about that, and I was part of the team that launched National Geographic as an embryo and saw it through to the multi-billion dollar business it is commissioning content internationally.
TBI: So we may see Justice execs at MIP in future?
SS: I miss my rosé on the Croisette in Cannes. The idea of legitimately coming back is appealing, providing there is a solid business reason to do so.