On Jan. 17, Spike TV will launch a new tattoo competition reality series and with its premiere, the network begins to push the new slogan, “Get Real,” that it soft-launched last fall.
The series—Ink Master—along with five other unscripted programs slated to debut by the summer, are part of a new commitment by Spike to a yearlong reality programming strategy that is meant to reposition the traditionally younger-skewing network for a broader audience of men.
It is a tactic that helped propel History to its current standing as a top-five network and has led to the success of several Discoveryowned networks and put others like truTV on the map. And it is also part and parcel of an extraordinary homogenization among entries in cable’s reality TV fare.
Spike’s Ink Master follows the path tread by other tattoo-themed reality shows such as A&E’s previous Inked and TLC’s NY Ink; what differentiates this entry is the addition, for the first time, of a competition aspect. Big Easy Justice, premiering on the net in April, also explores familiar reality TV territory as it follows bounty hunter Tat-2 in New Orleans.
All of which begs a nagging question: With so many cable networks now chasing fans drawn to programming about pawn shops, storage unit auctions and repossession agents, among other pursuits, can viewers even recognize which genre show is on which network?
“I think increasingly less and less,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. “The lines have been blurred. Something works on one network and they are very quick to jump on that success with kind of like a clone, and I don’t think that that really matters.
“To viewers, I don’t think that’s as critical as saying ‘Wow, I really like this show, I’m going to watch it,’” Adgate adds. “What cable network they’re watching it on really doesn’t fit in, it’s not as prevalent as the show.”
Programmers no doubt care deeply whether viewers know what network they are watching their shows on, but even they have noticed the brand recognition confusion among viewers.
“What I really love is the people who love shows that are on other networks and they think it’s on Animal Planet,” says Marjorie Kaplan, president of Animal Planet and Science networks, pointing to the History series Swamp People as a competing series that she thinks could be on Animal Planet.
The copycat strategy is certainly not new to unscripted or scripted television. As one network president who requested anonymity put it: “There is a long and honorable history in the entertainment world of following the herd.” But the challenge for networks hoping to occupy a crowded space becomes not how to copy a successful show, but how to do it better.
“You always have to be first in the originality of the concept. But to say that you’re going to spawn a whole new genre…you aspire to do that, but it’s also about what’s your spin,” says Sharon Levy, Spike TV executive VP, original series and animation.
In the case of the bounty-hunter series Big Easy Justice, Levy says series star Eugene “Tat-2” Thacker “popped off the screen” in his sizzle reel.
“That’s one of those moments where you go, ‘You know what, there have been bounty hunter shows, but he is really unique,’” Levy says. “That element makes the show unique.”
Kaplan says the same is true looking at the success of Swamp People on History as an example of the opportunity Animal Planet has to expand its reach.
“I think our job is to look at something like that show and say not how do we do that show, but how do we do a show that is more right for our audience, more distinctive,” Kaplan says.
And while programmers’ first priority is to attract viewers to their shows, creating a distinct brand and voice so that viewers stick around from show to show is key to creating a hit network, not just a hit series.
“It is repetition that builds a brand,” says Marc Juris, executive VP and COO of truTV. “Watching one show and liking one show but then going away doesn’t really help you in the long run.”
For Spike and all the other networks chasing the reality TV-loving male viewer, the challenge for longterm success becomes how to get viewers dedicated to the way you tell stories, so that they build a loyalty to your network that lasts past programming fads.
“At a certain point the strategy is going to die, it’s going to stop working,” says the network president. “The combination of how do you not be too dependent on it and make sure that you’re always pushing at it is, I think, a huge challenge in the reality genre that’s maybe even in some ways bigger than in the scripted world.”
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