Nets Strutting Out Stunts This Summer

Programmers look to take advantage of captive audiences

From killer sharks to serial killers, cable networks are looking to slay viewers with highly promotable, multi-day programming stunts that they hope will both draw viewers and bring awareness and attention to the brand, especially as people continue to spend more time at home during the pandemic.

 Lifetime’s “Ripped from the Headlines” stunt will include Surviving Jeffrey Epstein, which interviews survivors such as Virginia Giuffre. 

Usually relegated to major holidays and the doldrums of the summer when network shows are typically on hiatus, industry executives said stunts like this month’s SharkFest on National Geographic, Shark Week on Discovery Channel and Serial Killer Week on Investigative Discovery will become more prevalent on cable network lineups in the foreseeable future, given pandemic-related delays in the production of new and returning series.

“These [stunts] provide an opportunity for networks to focus audience attention on content that fits the brand and audience wants to see,” media consultant Bill Carroll said. “During this pandemic, it’s important to have viewers check out your brand, and any type of promotion that attracts viewers works to your advantage.”

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Indeed, a number of cable networks are scheduling themed programming blocks around both original shows and popular acquired content in an effort to reach viewers looking for programming alternatives in a television environment void of original programming and limited sports programming due to the effects of the pandemic.

• Smithsonian Channel will devote its Wednesday-night schedule throughout August to its “Wild Wednesdays” lineup of animal-themed documentary programming, including Cave Crocs of Gabon (Aug. 5) and Hunt for Escobar’s Hippos (Aug. 26). The network will also feature an Aug. 23 daylong natural disaster-themed programming stunt leading into the primetime premiere of its V-Day: Volcanic Planet special.

• Investigation Discovery will roll out its week-long “Serial Killer Week” stunt Aug. 31, featuring such provocatively titled documentary specials as The Butcher Baker: Mind of a Monster, The Serial Killer Among Us: Phillip Jablonski and BTK: Chasing a Serial Killer.

• Lifetime will offer its annual “Ripped from the Headlines” two-week programming event beginning Aug. 1. The lineup will include such shows as the Aug. 9 premiere of the Surviving Jeffrey Epstein special and the Aug. 2 premiere of the Ann Rule-themed Murder to Remember movie, which marks the directorial debut of actress Robin Givens.

Lifetime and LMN executive VP and head of programming Amy Winter said the network has expanded its programming slate from years past as it looks to draw in viewers with escapist programming during an unusually busy and unique period in the country.

“Lifetime’s brand-defining ripped from the headlines movies deliver a much needed escape to our audience who crave compelling and contemporary story-telling based on real life events with all the twists and turns that prove that truth is stranger than fiction,” Winter said. “This summer, we expanded the slate to also include the real people that inspired these movies and extended the experience with a new show with Elizabeth Smart, digging deeper into Jodi Arias’s story with her prison cellmates and spotlighting the survivors in Surviving Jeffrey Epstein.”

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AMC and other networks will offer a mix of original and acquired film stunts to help build brand awareness and appeal with viewers. AMC has slated an Aug. 30 marathon of The Walking Dead’s first season including bonus content, plus two daylong film fests with the Jurassic Park (Aug.1- 2) and The Fast and the Furious (Aug. 8-9) franchises.

Carroll said networks will continue to lean on such programming stunts going forward as long as traditional programming schedules remain uncertain.

“Unless circumstances dramatically change in the next month or so we are looking at a substantial amount of new programming not coming back until late 2020 or early next year,” he said. “Anyone looking to entice viewers to watch their network now will look to add more of these offerings to their schedule.”