Beliefnet
Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Since rebranding in 2013, Atlanta-based UP TV has broadened its appeal out from its Gospel Music Channel (GMC) roots, reaching beyond the choir to offer its trademark “Uplifting Entertainment” to anyone who has grown weary of the constant drumbeat of “edginess” served up by most other channels. UP TV likes to say it provides “Feel-good TV for you and your family.” It’s a strategy that seems to be working.  The growing network can now be seen in 70 million homes on cable systems and satellite providers across the United States. The channel offers a mix of premiere movies and original series. Ties That Bind, UP’s first scripted drama series, airs its first season finale tonight. 

In keeping with its brand promise, UP’s initiative, Uplift Someone inspires people to do simple, everyday acts of kindness. This month, the campaign is focused on the issue of bullying

UP also provides sales and operations services to the ASPiRE network, a positive entertainment brand aimed directly at the American-American community.

Executive President and General Manager Amy Winter joined UP in January after five successful years serving a simlar role at TLC.  I recently had the opportunity to speak with about her programming goals for the network.

JWK: As readers of this blog know, I’m a big fan of what you folks are doing at UP. I’m a big edgied out with dark programming that is more depressing than entertaining. I think a speak of a large part of the audience too.

AMY WINTER: It’s true. I do believe that there is a growing movement where you want to feel you are spending time with something where at the end you don’t feel like you need to take a shower and where (you) feel great for having spent time with that content.

I think (that’s) the type of content that we’re trying to do. We call it “Feel-good TV for you and your family.” What we mean by that is we’re gonna reserve the right to let you feel a range of emotions. We’re gonna make your laugh or we’re gonna make you cry but, at the end of it, you’re gonna go “That was a great hour! It was worth my time. I’m gonna come back here and spend more time here.”

JWK: What is the UP target audience? Who are you reaching out to?

AW: We’ve done a couple of studies with Nielsen and MediaVest.  What we’ve identified is an audience — they 42-million strong — and we call them “Family in Mind.” What that means is they really have their family in their thoughts when they start to make their entertainment choices. Now, it doesn’t mean that people in this demographic don’t crossover into other things. You know, a hit is a hit in TV. There are the crossover hits like Walking Dead that pretty much everybody watches. But I’m a mother of three and…if I’m controlling the remote there are some programs I’m gonna feel great having on if my kids walk into the room and I’m even going to encourage them to sit down and watch with me. That 42-million “Family in Mind” audience is really who we’re going after.

JWK: Do you think single people might also take to some of the show’s on UP?

AW: Definitely. That’s why we don’t say “family-friendly entertainment.” We say “Entertainment for you AND your family.” I know it’s a very small distinction but I don’t want to rule anybody out. I think that there’s a lot of people who are on that same quest for positive programming at any stage of their life. I think that what we recognize is that a lot of the content that we’re taking a look at is for people that are in a certain life stage — thinking about the more responsibility that they’re heading into whether it be committed relationships, having kids, moving into (their) own place, all those big life changes. (That time) when you go from just thinking about “me” to thinking about “we.” I think what we find is that, when you start thinking more globally than just yourself, you’re actually wanting to make some better choices.

JWK: This past summer you took the big leap into scripted series with the hybrid family/crime drama Ties That Bind.

AW: We did!

JWK: How’s that going?

AW: It’s going very well. We were so pleased. We had a specific purpose in mind which was to prove that you could do a show for families in the procedural space where we kind of did a 50/50 procedural and family drama and still deal with some pretty big issues — and do it in a very real way. I think a lot of times people hear “family friendly” and they think “Okay, completely sanitized, not gonna be entertaining.” We held them to a higher standard. So, you’ll see things in there that are pretty challenging. We just recently had an episode where there was some teen drinking in there — but there are consequences to those actions and it feels very real.

JWK: How did you choose Ties That Bind as your first scripted series effort?

AW: We air a lot of dramas in the daytime. As you know, we just added Gilmore Girls to that group — which we’re really thrilled about. So, we had a couple of things that we were looking at — both drama and scripted comedy. We felt like this one was such a nice (match) to some of the shows that we already had on the air or plan to get on the air…We knew we wanted to have a family drama but there’s something abut procedurals — as you can see from the plethora of them everywhere…This hybrid with a strong woman (Kelli Williams of The Practice) at the center really resonated for us.

JWK: It’s almost a twist on Law & Order which was half cops and half what happens in the courtroom. Ties That Bind is half cops and half what happens with the family at home.

AW: Exactly!…As for the (season) ending of Ties, we’ve got the family in a little jeopardy. Where we started with (Allison/Kelly Williams) having to take in her niece and nephew into her home, the ties that bind are little bit unsettled in the final episode (of the season). It’s an exciting finale.

JWK: Do you have plans to do more scripted series?

AW: We do. We have a number of different things that we’re looking at in development right now in terms of planning our series for 2016 and 2017.

JWK: Will they be dramas as well? Are sitcoms a possibility?

AW: I look at everything that comes in. It seems like the production community really understands our brand and where we’re headed. So, it’s really encouraging to see such a positive response. We have seen some sitcoms. We’ve seen some hour-long dramedies that are a little bit more meaty but still have a comedic angle to them. I think right now those types of dramedies are rising to the top because they just seem to have a little bit more weight to them…but I wouldn’t rule anything out.

JWK: So, you’re open to anything.

AW: Yeah. You know what’s really funny about it is I spent a number of years at a completely nonfiction network (TLC). I understood the brand very distinctly — just in terms of developing. But UP is a very, very broad brand with (both) fiction and nonfiction. Here I feel like a kid in the candy store. (At the same time) I have a very focused brand — which is entertaining families but  going through…an adult and entertaining them first and letting them feel they can bring their kids to the set. But I have all these different tools I can play with. I can play with sitcoms. I can play with dramas. I can play with reality. As long as I feel like it’s going to resonate with that audience at home. It’s really fun to play with.

JWK: TLC is also kind of a feelgood network — though without the scripted content.

AW: Yes, very much so, a lot of great family shows.

JWK: My wife and I watch The Little Couple on TLC. Is that a show you developed?

AW: My predecessor greenlit that but I worked with them for years. They are a wonderful couple.

JWK: Right now, UP is airing several reality shows that are of the aspirational variety.

AW: They’re just a fun mix right now. We’ve got Bringing Up Bates which is a lovely large family with 19 children, They are fun-loving  and big personalities. That’s a really great family show.

AW: Right now we’re in midseason on Last Hope with Troy Dunn which is a really great show…It’s a great cry at the end of every episode. Whenever I’m watching the show, it’s absolutely awe-inspiring to me to watch the healing of a family. It really is changing people’s lives for the better…It really is a great show for our brand in terms of just trying to take people to a better place.

JWK: In 2016 you’re launching Jo Frost: Nanny on Tour, a new reality show that’s sort of a follow-up to Supernanny, the reruns of which are also on UP.

AW: Yes…When I first came to UP there was…a lot of people talk about reality TV and (how some people) immediately assume it’s a very negative genre and space. Certainly there can be a lot of shows where there’s bickering and fighting and angst. There was a worry that, okay, we’re gonna go in the reality series (direction) but they can be done in a positive way.

The two shows I mentioned immediately were Supernanny — because I think that’s a great example where people are in a situation that is an absolute nightmare for them and we all get to enjoy watching the train wreck. There’s a little bit of “Thank goodness I’m not them. I might have trouble with my kids but I’m not as bad as those guys are!” And then you watch Jo go in and help them help themselves. And, at the end of the hour, they’re in a much better place and you got a bunch of takeaway from that show to apply to you own life. I think that is a great example of positive reality. And then the other one was The Locator which was Troy’s original show (about) finding people. So, I’m really thrilled that we acquired both of those and are now doing new series with both of those experts in their field.

JWK: Getting back to the scripted side, you guys to a lot of movies — and, in my opinion, they’ve been getting a lot better. Some of the earlier films could tilt a little toward the hokey side but the more recent scripts have gotten a lot tighter. 

AW: Thank you, very much. I think that we’re very choosy. We have a great franchise going now with the Love Finds You series. We’ll have the third installment of that in early 2016.  We did two movies that were set in Amish Country and they did terrific for us.

AW: We also have another trilogy with the Marry Me/Marry US series.

AW: Now, we have A Baby for Christmas with the Chandler family women. It’s a great returning Christmas series for UP as well. It’s very, very fun and light.

Getting to your point about movies too, we’re about to head into November which is our biggest movie stunt of them all…We do very well at Christmas. We’ll have seven premiere movies.

Also, The Holderness Family will be back for specials.  I don’t know if you’re familiar with The Holderness Family but they are the Christmas Jammies viral video folks.

JWK: I guess your big competition especially at Christmas time is Hallmark Channel. But UP is doing well in that space too.

AW: We are. We had our best Christmas season ever last year. If we (also) do social outreach. As a general campaign we do something called Uplift Someone. You might have seen our announcement about…our anti-bullying initiative as a part of Uplift Someone. What’s been in practice a lot longer on Uplift Someone’s Top Secret Santa which comes at Christmas time. Last year, we ended up doing a video with the Lowell, Michigan police. That video was viewed by 44-million people. You might have seen it. It was passed around quite a bit. A policeman was pulling people over. They thought they were getting a ticket but he was really trying to find out what they wanted for Christmas. We had an army of people at a local store running to give gifts out to them.

JWK: It must be a good feeling to know that, as a programmer, you’re not only putting out programming that is gaining in popularity but is also kind and positive.

AW: It’s a passion I think everybody at the network has. I believe it’s a movement. We’re seeing more and more people wanting to become a part of. We recently hired quite a few new people to the network. We’re a growing business. It was so nice to see the response that we got when we actually put a call out for a position because not only are we finding that people want to get on board with this type of programming but viewers at home are really seeing the need for it and craving it.

JWK: Where do you see UP in five years? Will you be programming a seven-night-a-week schedule like the broadcast networks, at least, used to? Or will technology change the way you go forward?

AW: I think technology will change all of us. Our content is going to drive everything. I want to be UP to be available everywhere an entertainment brand should be. We’ve got some really smart people at the network working on what out distribution looks like across all of that.

(And) yes, I would love to be able to be on seven night a week with original content. But I think the biggest thing that we can do is in a viewer’s mind or consumer’ mind to be the number one family entertainment brand out there.

John W. Kennedy is a writer/development consultant specializing in teleplays, screenplays and novelizations. He can be reached at john@jwkmedia.com.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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