A year ago, Charter Communications’ new original content division headed by Katherine Pope made its first major programming move, picking up L.A.’s Finest as the maiden series for Charter’s platform Spectrum Originals. The Sony Pictures TV/Bruckheimer TV-produced drama starring Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba, an offshoot from the Bad Boys movie franchise, started as a pilot at NBC last season, with Charter stepping in after the pilot did not go to series at the broadcast network.
Since then, Pope and her team have commissioned several other series including a Mad About You follow-up limited series with original stars Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt; an Atlanta Olympics bombing-centered second installment of the true-crime series Manhunt, whose first season, Unabomber, aired on Discovery; and British racing drama co-production Curfew.
As L.A.’s Finest, from creators Brandon Margolis and Brandon Sonnier, is set to debut May 13, officially announcing Spectrum’s arrival as an original scripted player, Pope, former president of NBCU Television Studios and Chernin Entertainment’s TV division, talks with Deadline about plans for the service, including a possible expansion into unscripted, and lays out its business model with a nine-month U.S. only exclusive window that she says makes it very attractive to indie studios. Additionally, Pope, executive producer of New Girl, Single Parents and Bless This Mess, discusses why she chose L.A.’s Finest as Spectrum Originals’ first series and why her mom won’t be able to watch it, as well as why busted pilots could be a small fix away from a hit series. She also talks about the freedom of not having to conform to the adults 18-49 paradigm and shares which cable drama series has “blown her away.”
DEADLINE: What has been your mandate for Spectrum Originals?
POPE: The original mandate, which has remained, is essentially create a curated slate of original content for our subscribers to live on our VOD platform for an exclusive period and then going down to non-exclusive, so a series is available to subscribers whether or not it goes onto subsequent windows.
My goal was to find shows that appealed to different segments of our subscriber base and roll the shows out, learn how subscribers watch and what they like and what the experience should be, and make whatever adjustments you need to make and then put some more shows out there. It really is about being a value add for our subscribers.
DEADLINE: Your main target is Spectrum’s 17 million subscribers. Is Spectrum Originals similar to the Audience channel on DirecTV?
POPE: It has a similar philosophy because I was at NBC when we did the Friday Night Lights deal with DirecTV back in the day, and their goal was to have some extra value for their subscribers. I think ours is different in that we’re not doing a channel, it’s on-demand, so hopefully it’ll be more of a streaming experience. We’ve designed the whole portal and the platform, and I think it’s really elegant. It has other suggestions for things you might like and all of that kind of stuff, and it’s more watch-how-you-want-when-you-want kind of structure as opposed to trying to program a network in today’s environment. That didn’t feel as premium or like as much of a value add.
DEADLINE: You mentioned NBC’s Friday Night Lights, which became the first original drama series for DirecTV. Coincidentally, your first original series, L.A.’s Finest, also originated on NBC as a pilot last year. Why did you decide to launch the service with that show?
POPE: As I was starting to build the slate, I was doing a lot of research on our platform, trying to get to know who our demo was. We’re in 41 states so I came to learn our demo is America. We’re in New York City and L.A. but we’re also in San Antonio and Tampa. Then I started thinking, well, I should divide up our subscriber base and really think about what groups are being underserved because that’s probably where I could get the most value, make the most impact helping curate a slate of shows that are the A-plus version for this group. Right away we were looking at female and we were looking especially at programming for women of color.
When L.A.’s Finest came along — it was a pilot Sony had made for NBC — I watched it immediately. I’d had a long relationship with both Sony and Bruckheimer, and I’d followed the Brandons’ work. So I watched the pilot immediately and I was like, oh, yeah, this really feels right. It’s about something. It was real and grounded but there was fun to it, and it was ultimately about two adult women. When you start to think about shows based around two women, it’s been a long time since there’s been a good one.
Almost immediately I passed the pilot around, and we felt really good about it and about all the talent behind the camera. We added Pam Veasey who’s one of the best, Anton Cropper, the director/producer is really, really incredible, and so it walked the walk in terms of it was highlighting an underserved group’s experience but doing it through actual people, a largely African-American group behind the camera, too.
There were some things about it that were broadcast-y. It was made for NBC but I know what it’s like to deliver something for a buyer, you can just deliver a somewhat different version of it for a different buyer. Right off the bat I was like, OK, we care less about the case of the week and more about these women learning to trust each other, and when your friends at work become your family. They were excited about that, that was actually the direction they always wanted to go in. For a TV deal these days, especially a new model, a new template, it actually happened pretty quickly. I had sat with (Sony TV chiefs) Jeff (Frost), Chris (Parnell) and Jason (Clodfelter) very early on and laid out the model that we had, and they really got it.
Jeff in particular I think — coming from a dealmaking background — was leaning for it: Oh, U.S. only? There were things about the deal that he got the value for. Also L.A. is one of our biggest markets, that was another big thing. We were about to launch Spectrum News One, the L.A./Orange County 24-hour news channel, we have the Dodgers and the Lakers, it just all felt like it was a good place to start and I’m really proud of the show, really, really proud of it.
DEADLINE: On your inaugural slate you have drama and comedy series, you have Manhunt, which is a true-crime drama. What is your programming strategy?
POPE: I think when you have such a wide-ranging subscriber base, we didn’t want to pick shows that we thought would please everybody because I think when you try and please everybody you please nobody. So we really thought let’s make up some discreet buckets of audiences that we feel are underserved or just a show has a really, really specific point of view that’s going to appeal to that group and curate it that way.
Manhunt is a perfect example. There’s a really specific active, passionate, true crime drama watcher. They tend to be male, they tend to sometimes be older. That was a refreshing thing for me, being like, oh, we can make a show for an older audience, because I was always stuck in the 18-to-49 realm. I think Mad About You, it’s really focused on empty-nesters. I think everybody’s going to love it and want to watch it and we’re hoping to get more. For me the reason Mad About You was going to work for us was the minute they said. it’s going to open with them dropping their daughter off at college and then they look at each other like, who are you? I was like, oh, that’s great, that’s a really, really specific point of view, and so really looking at it that way.
DEADLINE: IP, you mentioned Mad About You. Manhunt also is a somewhat known title, and LA’s Finest is based on Bad Boys. Are projects based on existing IP a major part of the portfolio because they are easier to market in a crowded marketplace?
POPE: I actually think for me, having done a lot of remakes or things based on IP, it can hurt as much as it helps. I really think of LA’s Finest, I think it’s very separate. Obviously Jessica wasn’t in the movies, Gabrielle’s character, I think we’re getting to know her so much more here, so I would be interested in that show whether it was out of the Bad Boys universe or not.
Mad About You, I think there is some nostalgia to that title. When Paul and Helen walked into our conference room, their chemistry was palpable.
I think Manhunt, which was Discovery but it was on Netflix too, it was really more about the subject matter and the script. I don’t think people even know that title, and I really feel like the story we’re telling in that show which is about the Atlanta Olympics bombing and Richard Jewell and Eric Rudolph — it really speaks to the moment we’re in now in terms of rush to judgment and people who explode in the public eye and the price they pay for that, so I think it’s going to be really resonate as well.
DEADLINE: You touched upon your business model a bit: U.S. only, short exclusive window. Can you share more details on that and about balancing big-budget dramas like L.A.’s Finest and lower cost co-productions? Are you looking to have a balanced portfolio?
POPE: I’m definitely taking a portfolio approach to the kinds of shows we make and what the business models are. I think one of the things that drew me to the job was the opportunity of U.S.-only, nine-month window. In a world where everybody’s gobbling up all your rights, if you’re a company that really wants to sell and distribute across the world and wants to exploit these assets, I think our model is really appealing. We’ve had great response from especially independent, non-aligned, UK production companies, places that actually still do the old kind of block and tackling of selling the whole world.
Our dealmaking’s really clean — after a nine-month window we go down to non-exclusive VOD and we don’t care where you take it. Take it everywhere, take it to a second window U.S., take it to a traditional cable channel, take it to a streamer, they can do with it what they will.
DEADLINE: But it also stays on Spectrum in perpetuity?
POPE: Yes, it stays on our VOD, on Spectrum, for the run of the show plus at minimum 10 years. But I think people across the business are starting to look more and more at non-exclusivity, I think that’s been something we’re all talking about right now based on all of the new streaming services and the fact that this company was already like, we just want it to be there for our subscribers and it can be anywhere else, we don’t care.
We have a huge window also in the second window U.S. because there are huge spots of the country where we are not, where even if they want to watch it they can’t, that’s an entire 40 million people. It’s not as simple as clicking and getting a Hulu subscription — they are not in our footprint and therefore wherever it goes off of our first window it’ll be new to a huge amount of the audience.
DEADLINE: Is there any plan to go beyond the Spectrum subscriber footprint like HBO Now, a version available as an app to people outside of the Spectrum universe within the exclusive window?
POPE: Outside of the footprint? No. As of now, no. We do have digital video-only subscribers if you’re in footprint — it’s very straightforward and easy — but we are not selling you shows or services or anything if you don’t reside in our footprint. Like my parents live in Chicago.
DEADLINE: So there’s no options for them to watch?
POPE: There is no option for them. We’ll see. Because I feel like there’s so much value in the second window, I’m sure Sony’s going to sell a second window. I think each of these shows that we have, Lionsgate and Manhunt, they will go to a second window, and some of the ones that we’re working on that we haven’t announced yet. We have a few through our deals with Viacom and AMC. We have the first window and then it goes on their network which is obviously North America.
DEADLINE: Tell us about those content partnerships and what we can expect from them?
POPE: AMC and Charter have very, very deep ties; that was the earliest one the company did, it predates me. The Viacom deal is a little bit different and is really far-ranging with any of their entities, so it’s taken some time to really figure out how to attack it, but we’re about to greenlight our first thing out of that partnership, and we have a couple other really strong pieces of development with them.
I think those are just ways to keep the cable ecosystem healthy and keep that dialogue and collaboration going. AMC is a really strong and particular brand, and it’s a way to access more projects there. And, between Paramount Television, BET, Paramount Network, there’s been some really great projects we’ve been able to access through those brands.
DEADLINE: Are there any other similar content partnerships that you’re working on?
POPE: For now that’s really where we’re at, because we’re not looking to like be a Netflix here. We’re really looking to curate a small group of shows for our subscribers and to really support those shows. Never say never, but we’re really not going to have a crazy volume. I don’t think that’s what we’re here to do.
DEADLINE: How many series are you launching this year and what is the expansion plan for the next few years?
POPE: I think we will end up launching four this year, two through acquisition/co-production models.
DEADLINE: Which are they?
POPE: Curfew’s the first one. The other one we’re still closing on. Some of it is, if we share a show with one of the sister networks, it’s almost like a year-on, year-off model because it’s got to go on our air for nine months, then it goes on their air for nine months, so it’s a little bit of a like puzzle.
L.A’s Finest and then Mad About You will be this year also. For now I think launching four th.is year. It’s going to be a little crazy so that feels like a good number per year. When I started we laid out a three-year plan and a five-year plan, so we’re in year two.
DEADLINE: What is the three-year plan?
POPE: We’re going to try these first shows. I don’t have a hard number on it, partially because it depends on the flow of the series, it depends on what succeeds, and it also depends on, are there subscriber groups that we really end up scoring with and we want to give them something else. You never want to be in a position where you’ve committed so much that you aren’t able to convert on success where it’s like, oh, we did it, this show really hit. Well, too bad we don’t have any resources for another one. So I’m going to learn from L.A.’s Finest first and foremost and hopefully bring that show back.
Mad About You is limited so it’s planned to have a beginning, middle and end, and some of these co-productions depend on the sister company, so there’s just so many variables, but for the foreseeable future we will not be doing a huge amount of volume.
DEADLINE: In terms of drama versus comedy, what kind of mix are you looking to for?
POPE: In development, I think we have two other comedies in development but we’re open, and we’ve explored some other comedies. We’re looking at some point to maybe go into unscripted, doc series or something like that, but we’re walking before we run. We’re trying to get the slate out the door.
DEADLINE: How big is your development slate? You mentioned two comedies, how many dramas do you have in the works?
POPE: Our development slate isn’t huge only because we’re really trying to buy what we make, but 20 maybe.
DEADLINE: Are you in the straight-to-series business?
POPE: Sometimes. We didn’t make it but L.A.’s Finest was a pilot. We were very close to doing something with Freeform, and they had a pilot, so if there’s a platform partner we’ll fold into their process. It was nice to have a pilot for L.A.’s Finest to know the things we loved and the things we wanted to change, but for Mad About You, Manhunt and obviously Curfew, there’s no pilots.
DEADLINE: And you’re planning to launch an in-house production arm?
POPE: No. One of the other nice things that I thought was a business opportunity in the marketplace was Charter was really clear they didn’t want to start a sales and distribution arm, they didn’t want to build out some studio. What’s refreshing about the company is that they do so many things well and they are like, let’s double down on the stuff we do well. I think to some degree my division was doubling down on the success they’ve had with New York One and realizing that when people found out that Spectrum was the exclusive home of New York One, that really drove their decision-making in terms of their subscriptions.
The company had that impulse, and I really have backed that up because I think that ownership is such an enormous issue in our business right now. Holding back library and all that stuff is really changing every minute. For some of these independent non-aligned studios, they get into business with someone and suddenly the ownership line keeps moving, and I think that’s really hard. I think there is something special differentiating for us in the marketplace when we say oh, if you want to do it 100 percent yourself, great. We’re not trying to compete in that part, we’re trying to create shows for our subscribers.
DEADLINE: So you’re not planning to ask for ownership?
POPE: Some of the shows we went in — like Manhunt is a 50/50 co-production with Lionsgate — but that was not us saying, we want to produce it, that was us saying, we’re incentivized and showing you that we are incentivized in this. Lionsgate’s going to distribute it, we’re not going to get involved in that piece of it. But we definitely don’t have any plans and would not start to be like, oh, it’s a hit, now we’re only going to pick it up if you [give us a piece]. We’re just trying to be really easy and straightforward with our dealmaking.
DEADLINE: Original programming is an expensive business proposition. How strong is Charter’s commitment to Spectrum Originals?
POPE: I think what has been really comforting to me and great to know is not just the New York One example — and now starting one here and doubling down on local 24-hour news across the country, which in today’s moment I just admire so much — but also our CEO, Tom Rutledge, had been a part of when Cablevision owned AMC, so he was there when they were doing all these originals. He knows what it takes and he really understands what you have to commit to it and how you have to build on success.
So it isn’t the case of one of these companies from on high being like, should we make some shows? it was incredibly thoughtful, the resources very much mapped out, and really feeling like they actually knew the game and had some strategic examples.
So I felt a real commitment because obviously we’ve seen these examples of companies dipping their toe into original content and getting spooked, some companies multiple times, they’re doing the do-si-do. But I didn’t feel that in my like first couple meetings and I certainly don’t feel it today, they’re really dedicated to it.
DEADLINE: Do you have a dream series or a specific genre/title you want to do here?
POPE: I’m not going to be precious; I do feel like L.A.’s Finest to some degree is a dream series. I think it’s a quietly revolutionary show. I think that the themes and the in-front-of- and behind-the-camera commitment to being a modern take on a classic genre is something I always love to watch. I was blown away with Season 1 of Killing Eve. I’m nervous when something’s really good and it comes back, but so far I’m loving Season 2, I think they’re totally delivering on it.
I love all kinds of TV. There’s probably no genre I don’t love, so when I can watch a show that takes tried and true archetypes and completely flips them and shows you a point of view you haven’t seen before, that’s what I love. Like some of the areas we’re still looking for, we’re really continuing to look for underrepresented voices, it’s a huge part of our mandate. I’m trying to make shows that just we would make.
DEADLINE: After L.A.’s Finest last year, are you going to be watching broadcast pilots this year?
POPE: Yes. After whispers of L.A.’s Finest happened I was inundated. I say to everybody, I know how hard it is to make a great show. You have to do so much and then you have to get so lucky. I don’t take that lightly at all, sometimes you do everything right but you miss one thing. I’ve worked on pilots where I felt like it didn’t get picked up because of one thing, and if I could just quickly change out that piece of casting or add that final scene that really nails it all together, or whatever. I have that in my head always, so when I see pilots that haven’t gone, I don’t think of them as somebody’s castaways, I always think of it as an opportunity and that sometimes you get a second chance. Sometimes a tiny, tiny fix can change the whole feeling of the show, and I get excited to think about what that fix might be.