VH1 and BET have found a show they want to split in hopes of a hit.
In an unprecedented collaboration between a pair of TV networks, the Viacom-owned duo are jointly developing a scripted-series pilot that, if picked up, would air in the same time slot on both channels throughout its first season. VH1 and BET are evenly dividing production costs.
The cable networks have ordered a one-hour pilot that will count Queen Latifah as one of its executive producers under auspices of her production company, Flavor Unit. Production will begin in March on "Wifey," a drama set inside the hip-hop music business.
The first-of-its-kind arrangement reflects a newfound flexibility in the TV industry to bend existing business models, particularly in cable, where the pressure is acute to add viewers without breaking the bank.
With a budget sources peg at less than $2 million per episode, "Wifey" carries obvious risks, not the least of which is that one network will become a much bigger draw and weaken its partner. But if the series makes it to air and finds an audience on two fronts, it could call into question the conventional wisdom on programming strategy and branding.
"This is absolutely an experiment, a gamble," said Michael Hirschorn, executive vp original programing and production at VH1. "These kind of seemingly counterintuitive leaps are the kind of leaps linear networks need to make these days."
In another unusual twist, the pilot will be directed by the president of entertainment at BET, Reginald Hudlin, who was known primarily as a helmer for both film ("House Party") and TV ("Everybody Hates Chris") before joining the channel more than two years ago.
"It was a hugely important priority for us because I like scripted shows and there was a huge audience demand for scripted programming on the network," Hudlin said.
The rationale for putting one show on two networks is to maximize its exposure in an increasingly cluttered media landscape while minimizing the financial blow should it fail to catch on.
While the channels would synchronize premiere airdates of "Wifey," they still would be free to repeat episodes independent of each other's schedules.
Both channels have dabbled in shared programming ventures with other partners before but never to the point of simultaneous airings. In 2003, BET and Oxygen co-financed production on an animated series, "Hey Monie," but its runs were separated by several months. Last year, VH1 and Sundance Channel shared a four-part documentary, "The Drug Years," but the latter channel aired the program four days after VH1's premiere.
The BET-VH1 collaboration also marks the first between an MTV Networks asset and BET, which largely has operated as a separate fiefdom despite their common corporate parentage. Since being acquired by Viacom for $3 billion in 2001, what few ties BET has struck outside the company have been with CBS News and Showtime Networks, which have since split off with CBS Corp.
"When I came here, I really wanted to change that," Hudlin said.
MTV Networks felt likewise, and Hudlin recalled a warm welcome from MTV Networks chairman Judy McGrath and Brian Graden, president of entertainment at MTV Networks and president of Logo, when he joined BET. It also helped that Graden and Byron Phillips, BET's executive vp entertainment, had ties as alumni of the same class at Harvard Business School.
"Wifey" first bloomed at VH1, where an unscripted program that ultimately fell out of development yielded a premise that executives there felt held promise once converted to scripted form. The series revolves around the widowed wife of a slain hip-hop mogul who takes over his troubled record company with help from her friends.
Latifah is eager to trade on her own experiences as an artist and executive in the hip-hop world, and she plans to rope in some of her more famous friends for "Entourage"-style cameos.
"It's a real progressive move on VH1 and BET's part to make it happen," she said. "It gives us a shot at really succeeding as a show and broadening the audience."
Maggie Malina, senior vp films and scripted series at VH1, took the idea to Shakim Compere, Latifah's business partner at Flavor Unit, who was interested in moving ahead. But as the budget that came into focus seemed out of VH1's league, the network decided to revisit the financing structure it adopted for "Drug" with Sundance.
BET came into the picture about a third of the way into development with the innovative suggestion of a 50-50 financing split. "We brought up the Sundance model," Hirschorn said. "Byron proposed, 'Let's do something new here and split it down the middle.' We quickly agreed."
Key to the decision by both networks was the fact that there is little overlap between their respective audiences. Hip-hop's cross-cultural appeal could make "Wifey" an interesting test case for targeting two different audience segments, with BET a favorite channel among blacks and VH1 likely to draw a predominantly white audience.
In "Wifey," the channels found a series with qualities that spoke to both of their brands. BET has long been a hub for hip-hop culture, while the eclectic VH1 counts hip-hop as just one of the many musical styles it celebrates, as well as its occasional focus on the inner workings of the music business. The network's reigning star is rapper Flavor Flav of the hit series "Flavor of Love."
For VH1, finding a strong scripted program is important because Hirschorn wants a versatile schedule in place just in case his current wave of unscripted hits, including "Flavor," begin to falter.
"Certainly the lesson of about five years ago, when we were the 'Behind the Music' network, your success can quickly turn into your failure," Hirschorn said.
"Wifey" won't be VH1's first attempt at scripted series. Last year, the Tori Spelling vehicle "So Notorious" failed to get traction and was canceled after one season. "I think in retrospect I was thrilled with how 'Notorious' came out creatively, and it did fine, but it was an expensive bet," Hirschorn said. "If it had cost as much as reality shows, it would have been an easier pickup."
The shared-series strategy might not be an aberration for long. Hirschorn said VH1 is courting other networks about attempting similar experiments, and while the idea has met its share of resistance, there are interested parties even outside the Viacom family.
"Certainly a couple of networks are open to this idea," Hirschorn said. "We have to get creative in how we finance projects."
Hirschorn noted that with the multiplicity of digital platforms transforming media, the notion of two networks airing a series at once isn't as far-fetched as it once might have seemed.
"As you see content get filtered out onto iTunes, onto various other digital download services being streamed online, it makes logical sense to put out on another network at the same time," he said.
For BET, "Wifey" will represent its first attempt at an original scripted series. To date, all the channel's original efforts have been unscripted, including the reality series "College Hill," and all scripted programming has come from syndication, like the recent addition of HBO's "The Wire."
The unusual collaboration underscores the double-edged sword that is scripted series programming, which can be considerably more expensive to produce than the unscripted fare on which cable typically relies to keep costs down.
However, such networks as FX and TNT have demonstrated with such hits as "Nip/Tuck" and "The Closer" that no other form of programming can drive ratings and brand recognition more effectively with audiences and cable operators. Nonetheless, scripted programming isn't any likelier to succeed than the cheaper alternative.
There are plenty of potential obstacles to the VH1-BET arrangement that could turn "Wifey" into the programming equivalent of a three-legged race. Viewers could be confused by the hybrid approach, particularly if the networks opt to mount separate marketing campaigns. Creatively, there could end up too many cooks in the kitchen. And even in success, there is always the potential that one partner might want to bail -- and just imagine how complicated the acceptance speech could get if "Wifey" wins any awards.
Hirschorn is undeterred. "The value of one and one is more than two," Hirschorn said. "With two networks promoting it, the hope is that the novelty of the launch itself will draw some attention."
In addition to Latifah, the executive producers are Compere, Hirschorn, Malina, Hudlin, Phillips, Dedra Tate and Michael Elliot, who wrote the pilot.