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Can TNN keep popping?

For weeks last summer, TNN: The National Network dominated New York City billboards, boasting to TV viewers and the ad-buying community that "We've Got Pop." The campaign was trumpeting a new name and new owner for the 18-year-old network rebranded and relaunched by MTV Networks' Nickelodeon unit in September 2000.

So far, its ratings make it the fastest-growing service in basic cable. Prime time ratings are up 45% this year, and the channel stands among the top-10 rated cable networks. A new $25 million marketing campaign on Viacom properties and other media heralds its repositioning as the hipper successor to The Nashville Network.

But TNN's growth boasts should come with an advisory: "Look closer." The ratings are propped up by three nights of WWF wrestling each week, newly arrived from the USA network. Without it, TNN's monthly average might look more like a 0.6 than a 1.1.

That's certainly higher than the network had been doing with threadbare reruns like The Dukes of Hazzard, Dallas
and The Waltons. But it's not the clear programming success the poster campaign implies.

TNN executives freely admit that TNN is a work in progress. "We've been under construction for the last year," says General Manager Diane Robina, who took the reins when the channel relaunched. But she contends it's becoming the MTV generation's general-entertainment cable channel, a younger, edgier alternative to broad-based cable.

Its WWF shows are usually among cable's top-rated shows each week and typically draw ratings between 3.0 and 5.0, according to Nielsen numbers.

Media executives see the WWF's huge ratings as both blessing and a curse. For one thing, it's very tough to find other shows to promote during wrestling. The WWF's young, male audience never matched up well with USA's other programming until the channel created a Tuesday- night action-movie block.

Tim Spengler, Initiative Media's director of national broadcast, says TNN needs "a major ratings-grabber that is broader."

To that end, TNN secured off-net rights to Star Trek: The Next Generation
and CBS hit CSI:Crime Scene Investigation.
In October, the net began stripping off-nets of Star Trek
at 8 p.m., generating record ratings as high as 1.7 the first week but settling into an average 0.6. Next fall, CSI
comes to TNN, at $1.6 million per episode.

It's still going to take at least one breakout original series for TNN to reach the upper echelon of cable Nielsens. Sunday-night dramas help Lifetime regularly lead the monthly ratings, and TNT found a hit last summer with sci-fi cop drama Witchblade. TNN plans on scripted originals by 2003, and Robina estimates that 50% of the schedule will be original by 2005.

TNN hurried to launch some originals in August, opting for cheaper non-scripted shows that produced limited success. Robot Wars, which averages a 1.0 rating, has found a home Saturday nights after wrestling, and Ultimate Revenge
notches a 0.4 average. But Pop Across America, Small Shots
and Lifegame
flopped, averaging just a 0.1 rating. Currently run in late night, they haven't been renewed yet. Conspiracy Zone, a Politically Correct-style show hosted by Saturday Night Live
veteran Kevin Nealon, debuts in January.

TNN's general-entertainment rivals—USA, TNT, TBS—garner big ratings from original and acquired movies. But TNN can't spring for the recent hits they buy. Rights to a movie's first network window or first cable run can run up to $35 million—a figure too rich for TNN, according to Robina.

Instead, TNN buys less expensive movies from the 1980s and '90s, such as The Godfather
series, Platoon
and The Birdcage, airing them three times a week in prime.

That strategy could be risky: Hit movies are a guaranteed ratings hit, and conserving money for original series increases the pressure to find a hit.

TNN execs are moving slowly, adding new shows in prime and patiently sitting on some holdovers from the Nashville Network days. Some of the older-skewing programming will be the next thing to go, says Robina. "We still have some of The Waltons
and The Rockford Files. As we get more young viewers, that will change."