Juicing up

Rich Cronin is spinning the wheel once again, taking the helm of the Game Show Network. The ex-Fox Family Channel president replaces Michael Fleming, who had run Sony Pictures-owned GSN since its launch in 1994.

Cronin is well known in the cable industry, having spent 13 years at MTV Networks in affiliate marketing and as president of TV Land. His task is to put some juice into GSN, which is rather thinly distributed and viewed for a network of its age and its ownership by a major media conglomerate.

Hiring a new CEO was one of the terms Liberty Digital insisted on when agreeing to pay $225 million for a 50% stake in GSN in February, valuing the network at a moderate $15 per subscriber. Both Liberty and Sony are keen on the possibilities of linking GSN with nascent interactive-TV services, given that playing along with game shows is the most natural programming for interactive services.

Cronin considers GSN a fairly healthy operation. The network should start breaking even this year, roughly on schedule.

"The distribution growth was slow in the first few years, but there are a lot of networks that would kill for 35 million homes," he says. He also notes that GSN's average 0.6 rating is in the same ballpark as such networks as E! and VH1.

Cronin was tapped by Fox Family Worldwide Chairman Haim Saban to revamp The Family Channel, which Saban and partner News Corp. had recently acquired. MTV Networks executives saw the autocratic kids-TV-syndicator Saban as aiming directly at Nickelodeon. So they fired and sued Cronin because he had seven months left on his contract. That kept him sitting on the bench until his contract ran out.

Saban had already set much of Fox Family's programming, but Cronin's marketing spin was to make the staid family network "edgy" and hip. Viewers got so edgy they fled; Fox Family's ratings plunged. Saban fired Cronin last May.

Since then, Cronin has been wooed by myriad Internet entertainment operations and startup cable networks. "He wanted to work for a real company," says one industry friend. "And there aren't that many top slots around in cable."

Cronin believes that his background at TV Land and Nick-At-Nite makes him well suited for GSN, whose most popular programming is reruns of old game shows. One goal is to draw a younger audience, since GSN's current shows tend to skew 50-plus. That will partly come through marketing. "I don't want to alienate the existing audience," he says. "It's going to be more of an evolution."