Networks Scramble to Boost Live Programming as DVRs Shift Audiences

5:00 AM PST 02/22/2013 by Marisa Guthrie, Lacey Rose

With nearly half of viewers now watching scripted comedies and dramas on a delay, sports, late-night talkers and awards shows might be the last frontier for big ratings.

This story first appeared in the March 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Call it the eventization of TV. At a time when nearly half of all U.S. homes have DVRs, networks are shelling out an estimated $7 billion for rights to air NFL games, awards shows are popping up all over the dial, and there doesn’t seem to be a major cable network that isn’t exploring a foray into topical late-night. On Feb. 14, CBS -- already home to a mix of awards shows and sports -- announced it would not only provide content for but also invest in Mark Cuban’s AXS, a fledgling cable channel devoted to live programming.

Advertisers, too, are clamoring for such opportunities in a fractured, ad-skipping environment, shelling out $444 million on awards shows and live nonsports events in 2012, up 22 percent compared with five years ago, according to Kantar Media. Thirty-second spots during the Feb. 24 Oscarcast went for as much as $1.8 million.

Among those “chasing live” is E! president Suzanne Kolb, who has been poring over her network’s portfolio in search of events in its female-targeted milieu. The pop-culture cable channel’s live red-carpet shows continue to grow -- and E! is eager to monetize more of those moments. One idea gaining traction is expanding awards-show afterparty content. “There’s a real hunger for that [live] experience, which in some ways has been further fueled by the growth of DVR,” says Kolb, who has watched social media sites including Twitter light up as a TV companion during awards shows. It’s a trend on which Cuban is pinning his entire network. “In today’s world of social media, live TV starts the conversation that lives on Twitter and other social networks,” he says.

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Style network this year will debut a live fashion and advice show, Pop Style, and the cable late-night landscape continues to swell. FX has a new live iteration of BrandX With Russell Brand as well as Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell. Bravo has added a Kathy Griffin offering and expanded Watch What Happens Live to a Sunday-through-Thursday strip. TBS is developing companion efforts for Conan, and E! tried (and failed) with the Chelsea Lately complement Love You, Mean It With Whitney Cummings.

AMC’s recap series Talking Dead, the live companion to The Walking Dead, has been so successful (4.1 million viewers watched the Feb. 10 installment) that it has expanded to a full hour for the season’s final eight episodes.

“There’s an energy that comes from [live] that is hard to define,” says Joel Stillerman, executive vp original programming at AMC. “The whole idea is to create an event atmosphere. There’s something that is just a little better and a little more energetic when you’re counting down to a live broadcast.” The network is considering a similar entry to pair with the final season of Breaking Bad.

Meanwhile, A-list awards shows remain a big draw for viewers and advertisers, as the Feb. 10 Grammys proved with its audience of nearly 30 million. ABC’s Country Music Association Awards found itself in the middle of a three-network bidding war in 2011, with NBC and CBS lobbying to poach the show. The CMAs, combined with the Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes and Emmys, raked in $226 million in ad revenue in 2012, reports Kantar.

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But the holy grail remains sports, with its steep rights fees. While the NFL is out of reach to all but ESPN and the Big Four, second- and third-tier sports increasingly are sought to build cable spinoffs. Rival NBC Sports Network paid a premium to retain NHL hockey games, and CBS Sports Network president David Berson says his “No. 1 priority” is to increase live programming -- events and studio hours -- on the network. “People like to hear analysis and reviews and previews of events just as much as they like sports themselves,” he says.

CBS Sports Network airs live shoulder programming around events including U.S. Open tennis, the NFL and the upcoming NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. The network will program more than 350 live events this year, ranging from lacrosse and arena football to professional bull riding. Of the latter, Berson says, "We think it's got tremendous potential."

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