On some random day in 2013, viewers trolling the cable TV universe might double-check the channel number when they flip to History and see not "Pawn Stars" or "American Pickers" but a fictional drama about the Vikings.
Moving on to TNT and ABC Family, viewers catch reality shows in lieu of "The Closer" and "Pretty Little Liars." GSN has an offering that's not set in the typical gameshow studio. And rather than an original movie or "Frasier," Hallmark Channel is running a talk show.
For so many years, cable television programming was synonymous with audience niches, and the business model was all about narrowcasting. Now, for many networks, those days are gone as they aim to expand their reach by mixing up their programming lineups. For other networks, the subject matter may be the same but the presentation style is different.
"Of course, cable has to double down on content," says Matt Donovan, managing partner of McCann Erickson, New York. "Individual channels are realizing they have to become branded choices in their own right, with consumers accessing content in a wide variety of forms across a widening range of devices."
Cable networks, which originally made their mark by retransmitting old broadcast shows or thriving on specialized fare, are at another crossroads—partly because of the industry's success with original programming.
For GSN, new types of programming are giving advertisers the opportunity to integrate their brands into real environments, says John Zaccario, exec VP-advertising sales. "Genre expansion and genre redefinition have driven the output of original programming in all of cable. Those originals have fueled the growth of cable to the point where cable's originals and cable networks are the dominant brands in the TV landscape today."
Under new programming head Amy Introcaso-Davis, who joined GSN last November, the network is broadening its programming mix by incorporating "real-life" games into its lineup. The plan is to offer game shows in three categories: "shiny floor" games, which are in-studio games whose overall look and feel will be different from traditional game shows; "real-life" games, which take place in real-world settings; and "iconic" games, updated oldies such as "The Newlywed Game."
Among the new real-life shows in development are "Pure Gold," which captures the drama of people deciding whether to sell their precious gold valuables to assayers in a store in the Mall of America, and "Beat the Chefs," a cooking competition between everyday home cooks and professional chefs.
"Beat the Chefs" has been given the green light; the other "real-life" shows are in development, although the network says it is getting close on "Pure Gold."
Cable execs say these programming firsts are aimed at continuing to offer viewers new and high-quality content that fits within their networks' overall strategies and mission.
"I definitely don't see it as a departure," says Nancy Dubuc, president-general manager of History, referring to the channel's foray into scripted historical drama. "Historical fiction has been one of the mainstay techniques of storytelling through the history of television and Hollywood. We are the history brand, and we've kept this as holy grail territory for us. We've always held [scripted drama] out there as an area we wanted to explore. We feel we can be wildly competitive."
History's strategy has been to get to a Top 3 position among cable networks, aggregate the massive audiences and then present them with a premium-quality scripted product. According to the network, History ranked No. 3 among total viewers with an average of 2.1 million viewers in prime time during the first quarter of 2012, making it the No. 3 ad-supported prime-time cable network for the quarter, behind USA Network and ESPN.
History's first scripted series is a three-night dramatization of the legendary family feud "Hatfields & McCoys," premiering May 28. The two-hour episodes, starring Kevin Costner as Devil Anse Hatfield and Bill Paxton as Randall McCoy, will appear on three consecutive nights.
The network's first full-season scripted drama series, "Vikings," is set to premiere in 2013 with nine hours of programming.
"This is an amazing crossroads for History: embarking on our first scripted series," Ms. Dubuc says. "We want to be all things history on all platforms. You see so many of these shows working on premium cable, and we are so much more broadly distributed and such a bigger platform than that. We believe that this is a great reward for audiences in being able to see that next level of history programming in scripted form. I'm really excited to see how audiences react."
As enthusiastic as she is about getting into scripted drama, these are likely to be treated as special events in the History lineup. "You want these to be special in the landscape," Ms. Dubuc says. "There is a certain amount of breathing room that has to happen in order to do that, and you want to make the financial commitment meaningful per project. Obviously there are economics to being able to do that."
For Hallmark Channel, which has built distribution and a loyal audience with a lineup of original movies and acquired series, its programming expansion is about infusing the network with quality content that can get high ratings and tell great stories—delivering for advertisers, distribution partners and viewers.
The network not only is introducing its first wholly owned block of daytime lifestyle programming, including "Marie" and "Home & Family," but also will reach a milestone by bringing out its first original scripted series. Hallmark plans to first introduce two popular novels to TV as original movie pilots: Debbie Macomber's "Cedar Cove" and Janette Oke's "When Calls the Heart." Both pilots are expected to premiere in 2013, with the network hoping to develop them into episodic dramas.
Now that spinoff Hallmark Movie Channel is in nearly 50 million homes, it has become a place to continue the tradition of "Hallmark Hall of Fame"-style original movies—giving sibling Hallmark Channel an opportunity to develop in different ways.
"That opens up a great avenue for the Hallmark Channel to become something slightly different—still about the holidays and movies around the holidays but to supplement that with original series," says Bill Abbott, president-CEO, Crown Media Family Networks, Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movie Channel.
"Marie" is a one-hour weekday talk show hosted by entertainer Marie Osmond. The network describes the show, set to premiere in the fourth quarter, as "an inspirational journey to help people make a difference in their own lives." Segments will feature celebrity and noncelebrity guests, and a mix of discussion, lifestyle tips, trends and important issues affecting families.
"Home & Family," also set to debut in the fourth quarter, is a hosted series of two-hour shows, described as the ultimate destination for innovative home ideas and improvements and a place for the latest information, trends and products for everyone in the home. The show takes place in a fully functioning house on a studio lot. There will be segments throughout the house, including living areas, garage, home office, kitchen and garden.
Hallmark entered the lifestyle programming arena in 2010 in partnership with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia but has ended that relationship. The new shows, unlike those of MSLO, will be wholly owned and operated by Hallmark, allowing the network complete creative control over the direction of the programming and the freedom to extend its content across other platforms.
All of these networks are mindful that retaining a loyal audience while attracting new viewers can be a precarious balancing act. "It's a delicate thing to try to redefine yourself or expand and not alienate the core. We want to grow the audience, not transform and throw the old audience away," says Mr. Zaccario of GSN.
At TNT, the network has no intention of abandoning procedural series, but it is exploring a variety of programming genres such as competition reality and programming in the true crime and investigative space as well as docudramas.
TNT's summer programming lineup includes its first unscripted competition show, "The Great Escape." Premiering June 24, the show follows three teams that each week compete for cash in action-filled locations such as castles, sinking ships and prisons. "The Great Escape" has attracted two seasonlong sponsors, Volvo and Anheuser- Busch's Michelob Ultra. Volvo will have integrations within the program and also have custom elements.
Michael Wright, exec VP-head of programming for TNT, doesn't see "The Great Escape" as any more of a departure for TNT than "Falling Skies," last year's success about life and survival in the wake of a catastrophic alien invasion. He points to the flexibility of TNT's positioning as the "drama" brand, adding, "It allows us to explore a lot of different areas to please our audience."
At the end of the day, a network wants to be in viewers' "consideration set," he says. "If a viewer doesn't have a specific show to watch and your network is included in the 10 or 12 channels they check to see what's on," Mr. Wright says, "then you've succeeded in your task."