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SundanceTV and Archie Bunker? Indie cinema cable network branches out to reach viewers

SundanceTV and Archie Bunker? Indie cinema cable network branches out to reach viewers
Aden Young is the star of the acclaimed SundanceTV series "Rectify," which begins its fourth and final season Oct. 26. (SundanceTV)

Cable network SundanceTV was founded two decades ago as a place where viewers could experience the films shown at Robert Redford's famous festival in Park City, Utah.

Starting Nov. 7, it will also be the home of such TV icons as Mary Tyler Moore, Archie Bunker and Hawkeye Pierce.

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Some film buffs will cringe at the idea of mass-market network hits including "M*A*S*H," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "All in the Family," "The Bob Newhart Show" and "The Andy Griffith Show" appearing in the daytime lineup of a channel named after an institute that supports independent storytellers.

But for SundanceTV, it's the latest move in a long-term strategy to convert from a premium niche movie channel to an ad-supported service with its own distinctive brand of programming — the chosen route for many networks fighting the growing number of viewing alternatives online such as Netflix and Amazon.

AMC Networks President and General Manager Charlie Collier, who added SundanceTV to his portfolio last year, said he's hoping that viewers who tune in for TV comfort food during the day (curated under the indie-ish moniker "The Set") will come back for the one of the channel's more adventurous original series, such as "Rectify," which is entering its fourth and final season.

"Unabashedly, one of the reasons for this daytime strategy is to bring more people into Sundance to see the promotions for shows they do not know about," Collier said.

SundanceTV, formerly known as the Sundance Channel, has slowly built a lineup of original shows since 2013, when it became an ad-supported network. This year the total is up to seven new original series, with plans to exceed that number in 2017. Collier has a track record with the formula, taking AMC from a vintage movie channel to a destination for distinctive award-winning series such as "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad."

Tom Sepanski, North American director of naming and verbal identity for Landor, a brand consulting firm, said original programs are what define networks in today's crowded TV landscape of 200-plus cable channels and new streaming platforms by the day.

"As people get at their content in so many different ways, it's becoming more program specific and less network specific," Sepanski said. "Even HBO – their viewers want their content a la carte. The 'Game of Thrones' brand is gaining in strength and HBO is getting a lift from that."

While SundanceTV adds original series, it has successfully built up its audience by programming Hollywood studio hits such as "Air Force One" and "Jumanji" along with the smaller, less well-known, independent films associated with the Sundance name. The channel has seen its target audience of 25-to-54-year-olds grow 27% in 2016 over the same period a year earlier, according to Nielsen data.

SNL Kagan estimates that SundanceTV's revenue has gone from $84.2 million in 2012 — the last year it was an ad-free premium channel — to $151 million in 2015. SNL Kagan expects the channel to grow 21% this year to $174 million. (AMC does not break out SundanceTV's earnings and will not comment on whether it's profitable).

The move toward multiplex fare may rankle some of the art-house crowd who fondly remember SundanceTV's roots as a commercial-free haven for small-budget films. But Sundance needed to adapt in order to thrive in a rapidly changing TV industry.

"A purist who wants to bemoan that it has nothing to do with Sundance anymore – that's their right," said Larry Aidem, who ran the network when it was called Sundance Channel and is now head of the film-streaming service Fandor.  "When it was sold for a gob-smacking multiple, it became AMC's asset and they can do what they want."

Even as a fan of the original format, Aidem acknowledges that the future was not promising before the channel was acquired by AMC (then called Rainbow Media Holdings) in 2008 for nearly $500 million. Cable- and satellite-TV operators have become much tougher when negotiating how much they'll pay in fees to carry channels. If SundanceTV had remained a small niche player, it could have been forced off their systems.

Over the last year under AMC's stewardship, SundanceTV has gained 1.2 million subscribers – it now has 61 million – while other cable channels have seen declines as a result of cord-cutting and a move by consumers to smaller and cheaper video subscription packages.

AMC Network executives say the business improvement is going hand in hand with a concerted effort to preserve the Sundance brand. They are striving to make the SundanceTV originals with the kind of risk-taking creativity that an independent film audience would demand. They believe that viewers are catching on to their approach.

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"Overwhelmingly we've heard from people who love our originals and that's where we connect with our audience," said Jan Diedrichsen, executive director of SundanceTV.

Although "Rectify" has drawn modest ratings, it was lavished with critical acclaim and a Peabody Award over its first three seasons. ("Robert Redford was a big supporter," Collier noted). The quiet, brooding series starring Aden Young as a man readjusting to society after spending 19 years in prison helped define the kind of programming the network was seeking.

The channel has also taken some chances in its international co-productions. "Deutschland '83," another Peabody Award winner, was shown in its original German with English subtitles. The program co-produced with RTL Television will return with another six-episode season.

The channel is also moving into the true-crime genre with "Murder in the Heartland: In Cold Blood Revisited." The four-part documentary examines the 1959 killing of a Kansas family that was depicted in the Academy Award-nominated 1967 film "In Cold Blood," which will be presented in conjunction with the series.

Such event programming can benefit from having the Sundance imprimatur.

"It's smart for them to be thinking about how to imbue some of the brand ethos into that content," Landor's Sepanski said. "They can do it by running things uncut or remastering the picture."

Diedrichsen believes that the Sundance name has the power to elevate the classic TV reruns being added in daytime.

"We're not showcasing these shows as a nostalgia factor," Diedrichsen said. "We're going to be celebrating what influences they had on television today."

Each series will run in a block of episodes each day in their original lengths. Actors, writers, directors and producers will appear in segments to talk about how the shows broke barriers in their time and paved the way for current groundbreaking TV series.

Although the classic shows were seen by millions of viewers in another age of television, Collier points out that show creators such as Norman Lear were considered mavericks in their time, a status that he believes will be appreciated by the SundanceTV audience.

"One of my favorite moments of the Sundance film festival last year was when Robert Redford and Norman Lear were on stage together talking about a documentary about Norman Lear's life," Collier said. "A groundbreaking show like 'All in the Family' speaks to the core of the type of storytelling we're trying to create."

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Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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