Lionsgate’s Sandra Stern


PREMIUM: Sandra Stern,the president of Lionsgate Television Group, shares her views of the vibrant market for scripted programming.

WS: FX Networks’s John Landgraf started quite a debate when he said there are too many shows on television. What is your opinion?
STERN: I think there is never too much good television. We may not have time to appreciate all of it. I’ve got queues of shows that I haven’t gotten to yet, but I think it’s a luxury to be able to complain about too much quality. There is a lot of high-end television, the quality has never been better, and that is going to come at the expense of what we used to call programmers, the things that you watched because you had a half-hour to kill. TV today has got to be somebody’s favorite show and right now there are enough good shows that almost everything that is going to survive is somebody’s favorite show.

WS: Is television moving into a niche period, where a show no longer needs to be something for everybody, it can be something super special for a smaller group of viewers?
STERN: It seems to me that’s where television had started to go about a dozen years ago when cable started doing original programming. I know there was some original programming before the past dozen years, but when cable really came into its full flourishing, it was, by and large, with much more targeted [programming]. Yes, you had the general [entertainment] cable networks like USA and TNT, but when you looked at the cable landscape, FX was very different from Lifetime and it was going for a very different audience from Spike. These channels programmed for more targeted audiences, with the understanding that they were not going to get the kind of 18-to-49 audience that broadcast networks had to go after. They didn’t have to have something for everybody. Mad Men became the first breakout hit for AMC with an audience share that probably would have gotten it canceled on any broadcast network. But Mad Men established a particular brand for AMC. When you look at the cable landscape you are seeing more targeted, more branded programming.

WS: In today’s multiplatform world, how do you describe a successful show?
STERN: That’s a very good question. Largely, the networks will describe a successful show based on whether they want to pick it up again. Ted Sarandos [Netflix’s chief content officer] recently spoke in defense of why he doesn’t publish ratings. He says a show may appeal to a particular audience that he is trying to encourage and although the numbers may not be great, it may still be targeting an audience that he is focused on. So, I’ve got all sorts of different definitions for success. Ultimately, the high-minded part of me says a successful show is a show that I can step away from and say I’m very proud of, but since we don’t produce for ourselves, I always hope to do shows that I’m proud of. You want to feel that your show is not simply appealing to an audience, but [starting] a conversation. Because sometimes you are not getting the broad audience, but you are defining the conversation, you are making a statement that speaks to what you want to say and to the brand that you want to put out there. So I may not get a huge audience on a particular show, but if that audience is vocal and engaged and committed, first of all, I feel like I’ve done what I set out to do, and second of all, I feel like an audience will come. I remember when we did Mad Men; it was AMC’s first original [drama series]. It took a little time for people to not only find the show, but simply to get their arms around the fact that, Oh, AMC is doing original programming. We have a new series going into its second season now on Hulu called Casual. It’s a show that I’m very, very proud of. I have no idea what the numbers are on Hulu, but I know that Hulu is building its profile, and as its profile builds as a destination not only for reruns but also for original programming, and as they build their brand and their audience awareness, Casual—because it is a very well done show and does have something to say—will grow with it, so that is a successful show.

WS: Can a show create buzz even if it’s on a streaming platform that releases all 10 or 13 episodes at once, as opposed to having a weekly show where anticipation can be created for the next week’s episode?
STERN: There are pros and cons to both, but I do think the pros outweigh the cons in terms of giving audiences choice. I often say nobody ever got rich or successful by not giving the customer what he or she wants! And what the customers want, what I want as a consumer, is choice.

It’s a very easy target to talk about the release of episodes all at once and whether that is good or bad for buzz, but even on traditional television, it is not at all unusual for people to save up episodes and watch several at once. I’ll go to the office and someone will say, Oh my God, did you see [show x] last night? And somebody else will say, Don’t tell me I haven’t seen it yet! Those are shows with a traditional once-a-week pattern. What has happened is people find their own patterns and then they find their communities. They may talk more generally [in person] to people who haven’t caught up yet on that episode. But online communities are much, much more vibrant. That to me is the most exciting change in the past few years, how people use social media not just to exchange funny videos or [pictures] from their holiday vacation, but to actually exchange ideas and opinions [about television shows].

Going back to your previous question, how do you define success, one of the things our marketing team does for us, and I do, is go online to get a sense of what the buzz is for any particular show. I was talking to one of our marketing people about The Royals. He said there is a lot of online chatter, people were missing a particular character and wanted to see more of her. I need to pay attention to that. I’m really happy people are talking about the show. That tells me the show is in the public consciousness, which is a good thing. People have opinions about the characters and those opinions go beyond the person they happen to be having a cup of coffee with in the kitchen or at the watercooler, or whatever that modern watercooler is. That’s the exciting thing about how we are doing television today and the immediate connection we have with the audience. I don’t think that changes whether you put out one episode a week or all at once and let people choose what they want.

WS: Is Lionsgate broadening the net it casts searching for IP for potential TV series?
STERN: One of the things we are seeing is that with more series, doors have opened for a lot of nontraditional content creators. Ten years ago there was a large network of really talented showrunners and writers and people who had spent their careers—and at times long careers—in the TV world. They were operating initially in a world where there were four or five networks and primarily coming up with original content. I think about the great TV shows of the past: Seinfeld, Mad About You, ER, those all came from the fertile imagination of a really smart guy who had a vision of what he wanted to say.

Today, with so many outlets and so many people migrating into television, people are relying on things other than original ideas. Orange Is the New Black is based on a book. [Creator and showrunner] Jenji [Kohan] pretty much mined the entire book in the pilot; everything else was her imagination! What we are seeing today is a far greater reliance on pre-existing IP. We have probably a half dozen projects in development at various outlets based on Lionsgate features that may have outlived their life expectancy in film, but they have become really fertile ground for television. Characters were created in those films that had more to say, that had a continuing life. We want to delve deeper into those characters than we were able to in 96 minutes. I often say that a movie is like a one-night stand and a TV series is like a long-term marriage; there are compromises that you make along the way, but the depth of the relationship, the level to which you can explore character and the stories you can tell often need time to play out. We are seeing a lot of that, taking IP from different worlds and adapting it to a long-term relationship.

[We are also singling] out a lot more books and a lot more foreign formats. We are starting production on Feed the Beast, a new series for AMC. It’s our first with them since Mad Men. It is coming from a showrunner who has been around a very long time, Clyde Phillips, who did the first four seasons of Dexter and the last three seasons of Nurse Jackie.

There has been recognition that all creativity was not relegated to the U.S. There are talented and creative people all around the globe, with unique and interesting things to say [that] speak to universal issues that can be easily adapted to American sensibilities.

WS: Lionsgate has frequently partnered on projects.
STERN: Lionsgate is a very good partner. A lot of studios don’t like to partner, they respond negatively to a network saying, If you want to be on our air you’ve got to partner with us and give us half of your show. I’m OK with it. I like to keep my own show, but we are good partners and we understand the world. But what we are primarily looking for when we look for a partner is a strategic partnership.

At Lionsgate we see the world as a very diverse but also very integrated place, so we like producing in different countries, taking advantage of different talent, and we are not so immodest to think we know how to do everything ourselves. We shoot The Royals in London with an almost entirely British cast and an entirely British crew. The Brits know their system better than we do. We like having a partner.

We are a pure content company. We have always believed—long before it became a mantra—if you build it they will come. If you create good compelling content, with a point of view and a statement, you will find an audience and you will find partners. We built that one step at a time. We put on the air [one of] Showtime’s first [originals], Weeds; and Starz’s first original scripted shows, Crash and Boss, and AMC’s with Mad Men and Netflix’s second [original] series. We are launching Graves on EPIX. We put [on one of] Hulu’s first [original] shows and now have five series on Hulu. We like to find the right partner and sometimes it’s a traditional player and sometimes it’s a nontraditional player. What maybe distinguishes us from everybody else is that we are excited about those new partnerships. It’s what gets me up in the morning—how can I do something today a little different than yesterday? Not just for the sake of novelty but because it is a smart way to expand and move my business forward.