Don’t forget cable TV as a legitimate outlet for your video wares.

Though the information superhighway is being paved a little further every day, it seems the promised 500-channel cable universe may be more hope than reality. To most of America, this just means having to be satisfied with the same 60 or 70 channel choices. But to independent video producers, it means an incredible loss of opportunity. Talk of highly-targeted, audience-specific channels such as a boating channel, the how-to-sew network and the high school sports station are little more than whispers now. Undoubtedly, the technology will eventually become available, all the bugs will get ironed out and television nirvana will arrive. For the time being, however, it’s business as usual.

Fortunately, that’s not such bad news. Those 60 or 70 choices now available offer an unparalleled chance for videomakers to get their work viewed by a national audience. In case you stumbled on that last sentence, let me repeat–the specialty cable networks on the air today, in most every television market in America, are a viable distribution outlet for independent video producers. We’re not talking CNN, MTV or Lifetime. It’s the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, Food TV, the Sports Channel and others that provide hope for the independent looking for viewers.

Two caveats before proceeding: 1) stop reading this article if you have little patience, and 2) stop reading this article if you think working with cable will make you rich and famous. Fighting your way onto a cable system will tax both your patience and your checkbook. It also happens to be an incredibly rewarding experience. For those of you that are still with me, let’s examine how you can infiltrate this burgeoning marketplace.

Watch and Learn

One of the best ways to learn is through observation. And that’s a good tact to use when exploring the cable marketplace. If you want to land a program on a cable network, then you better start watching the various networks to see what type of programming they already offer.

Here’s a little personal experience story to get you started. Through my gig taping local weightlifting contests at a city gym, I became hooked up with a local clothing manufacturer who was working with the bodybuilders to develop a line of clothing for their special body needs. The clothier liked the idea of using video to publicize the line. While bodybuilder clothing is not new, this manufacturer’s ideas and styles were, so we planned a 10-minute promotional video. As we discussed the numerous outlets available for such a tape, the idea of sending it to televised sports programmers came up. Thus began my watch and learn mission–I would plant myself in front of a television set and observe the production styles and techniques of all the sports channels I could locate. The editing, length, lighting, music, sound and graphics were all areas of interest. I figured if I could make my video look enough like what was already showing, the chances of the tape seeing airtime would increase.

One hint–keep it simple. If you lack the facilities to put together a video that rivals the mega-buck programs on the air, don’t fret. The cable network can always do magic with your simple, yet technically clean raw footage. More often than not, the channel will want to “personalize” your video to fit their needs.

In addition to gaining data on how the network puts shows together, also notice what types of shows the network airs. For example, you may be able to mimic all of the production mastery displayed by a program on one of the many nature channels, but is your planned video on the eating habits of your pet guinea pig a viable option for the network? Pay strict attention to the content of the programming of any cable channel your are planning to solicit with program ideas.

Ask a Question

Technically, you’re up to par. But the idea brewing in your head still hasn’t solidified. What’s the next step? Simple–call the various cable networks and ask them directly if your idea or footage interests them. What better way to avoid wasting your time?

Back to the weightlifting example. I had planned on shooting a straight “promo” piece of the clothes being modeled by the bodybuilders. The script called for interesting shots of the big guys at various locations, showing off the line of casual and formal clothing. While this may have been a successful plan for buyers at clothes shops and even for press purposes with some magazines, it wasn’t going to work with cable.

The acquisition folks at ESPN bluntly told me if I wanted them to air a commercial, I had to pay for it. Back to the drawing board. After some brainstorming, I called the network again and inquired about their interest in a news item that featured actual bodybuilders explaining the trouble they have finding comfortable clothes for all occasions and how the new line satisfied their needs. This piqued ESPN’s interest. They came close to promising some airtime if I kept the interviews from becoming infomercials.

Obviously, not all cable deals will find success so easily, and I’m the first to admit luck played a major role in this example. But inquiring about a station’s level of interest in anything you have to offer, or what it is they want to see, is not only smart, but saves money and time as well. What you may believe to be a unique idea, the network may have on tape 30 times over from other starry-eyed independent producers. Some facts to put it into perspective; The Discovery Channel receives around 3,000 unsolicited proposals per year. Of these, 90 percent are rejected before even making it to the people who make the decisions. Why? Because, as the network’s spokesperson said, “The solicited programming does not fit with our intended schedules.”

When you call, ask for a submissions information kit. This literature will spell out in detail what the network is looking for and when they are looking for it. It will also include other tidbits such as video formats accepted, length and number of episodes needed (I hope your Guineas have a big appetite!), technical specifications and copyright/ownership information.

Follow Instructions

What comes in the mail from the various cable networks is as good as gold. You can refer to those “instructions” as your plan for developing any idea that has been bouncing around in your head, or use the info to reshape any production or footage that is already in the can. These network-provided guidelines will increase your chances of landing airplay because you’ll be following the rules.

Another option at this point is to develop a proposal to seek funding for your production. If you’ve done your homework, now you just need to shape your ideas, on paper, into the most appealing presentation possible. Granted, securing funding from a network for an independent production is not an easy task. Of those 3,000 submissions to the Discovery folks, the network funded just two productions. Regardless of the outcome, creating a proposal is a good exercise in getting yourself organized and focused before you shoot a single frame of video. Nobody ever did too much pre-production work. It’s definitely better to spend time at this stage than waste money later.

When shaping your project, whether in video or paper form, keep the following in mind:

  • The subject must appeal to the cable market. Not just the people who are the position of acquiring your video, but the programming must “fit” with the network in general. The most incredible nature footage will never get aired on The Discovery Channel if you edit it into an MTV-style montage.

  • The subject must appeal to you personally. This seems obvious, but it’s surprising what an independent videomaker will do to get a production “on the air.” If you possess no interest in the topic of your video, it’ll show. A passion for the subject matter creates better, more engaging productions every time.

  • The subject must be able to create production value and keep viewer interest. You may find an investigation into the table settings of different cultures extremely interesting, but will it really intrigue the audience? And can you really justify using explosions and morphing for such a shoot?

Gearing up

One of the biggest mistakes of many novices attempting to enter the cable field is their choice of recording formats. It’s obvious that with technical advances and the ever-changing aesthetics of televised programming, that often “anything goes.” But to better your chances, don’t shoot on anything less than S-VHS or Hi8. Both of these formats bump up nicely to either 1-inch or Betacam, which are standards in the television industry. Shoot in DV, and your bumped footage will look excellent. Offering your show on usable formats make it all the easier to hear “yes.”

Also don’t neglect lighting and sound on the shoot. We all know the importance of proper lighting to recording a good video image. This becomes all the more vital when you begin to consider transferring original tapes to another format. Keep sound clean. It’s not often you hear muffled, unclear voices on televised soundtracks.

Promoting the Show

What are the chances of a cable network contacting you first? Well, just like every other aspect of dealing with cable programmers, you’ll probably need to initiate the contact. But if you publicize your project with enough gusto, the phone might ring. Besides, gaining some public and press attention can’t hurt you in any way.

A primer on publicity and promotion methods justifies its own full article, but here’s some quick tips:

  • Enter festivals. Cable acquisition people are often on the prowl at such affairs. They, like every other distribution network, don’t want to miss out on the next big hit. Maybe your entry is just what they are looking for. These places are also a good place to “meet and greet” some of the folks you may have been talking with on the phone. Even if you don’t know anyone, be sure to go out and press the flesh, passing out cards and flyers about your production.

  • Notify the press. When you begin production, as you shoot, when you finish the video–anytime something significant is happening with your project–let the proper press outlets know about it. Newspapers, consumer and trade magazines, local television shows, news programs and the like all offer numerous publicity opportunities.

  • Present yourself professionally. Whether you’re doing an interview, meeting with a possible distributor, securing a shooting location or simply working with talent, always act in a professional manner. Word of your good behavior will spread.

Expectations and Realities

If your show does sell, what can you expect? Local acclaim and self-satisfaction were two high points in my case. I also made invaluable contacts within the industry and this first credit will only make it that much more easier to get my second program accepted. I’ll have a proven track record, and folks will know they can count on me. The one let-down was in the fiscal sense. While the payment I received for the bodybuilding clothing piece was appreciated (and expected), it just barely covered my costs. The experience and contacts gained are worth more than anything else–they allow me a future in the business. I also had a great time, and that definitely counts for something.

Don’t get depressed if your project doesn’t sell. Being a smart businessperson, you realize it’s stupid to put all your eggs in one basket. Take your finished product and approach the rental and sell-through video market, libraries, the educational market, foreign markets, local cable and filler brokers. True, it may be discouraging to have your masterpiece referred to as filler for the 4:00-5:00am slot on a low power UHF station. But if it sells, and you gain any sort of audience, it’s a good start.

Producing a program and having it accepted by the powers that be is a lot of work and also somewhat of a longshot. But if you have the proper background info to get you started, keep a check on quality throughout, market it smartly and–this one is always rough–follow all the rules, it may be your own production’s title you hear mentioned by the cable announcer as he’s giving the evening line-up.

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