ReelzChannel hopes to maintain 'Kennedys' interest

Updated: 2011-04-17 17:16


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ReelzChannel hopes to maintain 'Kennedys' interest

Cast member Katie Holmes poses at the premiere of the television series "The Kennedys" at the Samuel Goldwyn theatre in Beverly Hills, California March 28, 2011. [Photo/Agencies]

NEW YORK – The true impact of airing "The Kennedys" miniseries on the little-known ReelzChannel network probably won't be known for several months.

For now, network CEO Stan Hubbard believes it was a gamble that will pay off.

"We are on the map now," Hubbard said. "I think `The Kennedys' put us on the map in a big, powerful way."

How ReelzChannel got to air an eight-part miniseries starring Greg Kinnear, Tom Wilkinson and Katie Holmes is one of the entertainment world's oddest stories this year. The History channel made it, yet dropped it in January under murky circumstances amid complaints about historical accuracy by Kennedy associates.

Hubbard followed the story from ReelzChannel's offices in Albuquerque, N.M. He saw that Showtime executives reviewed the series and ultimately decided not to run it, so he called that network's chief executive, Matthew Blank, to ask what was wrong with it.

Nothing, Blank told him. It was terrific television, but he didn't have room to run it on his network. Hubbard's next call was to History boss Abbe Raven. They had a deal in about a week, with ReelzChannel reportedly paying less than a third of the $30 million History spent to make it.

For many television viewers, it was the first time they had heard of ReelzChannel.

The film-centric network debuted in 2006 and is currently in 56 million homes, or half of the country with TV sets. It airs some movies, like "The Basketball Diaries" and "The Untouchables," but ReelzChannel's chief focus is television shows that talk about movies, with critics like Richard Roeper and Leonard Maltin playing prominent roles.

ReelzChannel had originally operated out of Los Angeles, but Hubbard moved to New Mexico in search of a cheaper place to do business. Perhaps owing to the location, ReelzChannel was initially focused on the industry, but Hubbard changed it to be more focused on the fan experience.

"The Kennedys" clearly would have been more widely seen elsewhere. Airing multiple times, each episode was seen by more than 2 million people, the Nielsen Co. said.

It was easily a larger audience than ReelzChannel had ever gathered. On the night of the series debut, only ESPN and USA out-rated it among cable networks. More importantly, Hubbard said, it introduced viewers to programs like "Hollywood Dailies" and "Maltin on Movies." One late-night Maltin show drew 120,000 viewers — paltry by larger network standards but three or four times the audience it would normally get.

"It was an opportunity," said Jack Myers, head of the TV industry newsletter "The Myers Report." "Even though it was controversial, it was a legitimate production and there was a lot of interest about it. I don't think there was a lot of downside to it."

Hubbard said none of the complaints about "The Kennedys" that apparently scared off History made it his way.

"Maybe they thought we were too small potatoes," he said. "But I thought if they really had a problem with it, we would have heard from somebody."

To date, the sampling is the only tangible impact on ReelzChannel.

The network sold less than two-thirds of its available advertising time for the series, although it was on the market for a limited time, Hubbard said. There were just under 20 individual advertisers, but just as many said no because they were concerned about controversy, he said.

One other disappointment: although some cable and satellite systems that already had planned to add ReelzChannel speeded up their plans because of "The Kennedys," no new systems signed on because of it, he said.

"If you were just trying to get awareness, this has probably succeeded, said Steve Sternberg, author of the industry blog "The Sternberberg Report." "But awareness does not always translate into viewers."

ReelzChannel needs to seek out other opportunities to keep its name out there, he said, although "The Kennedys" was a unique situation unlikely to be duplicated.

"We were very happy with how it worked out," Hubbard said. "The answer to questions (about its long-term impact) is still a few months away. Looking at it in the immediacy of it, I think we can say it worked out better than we expected."


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