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NBC Puts Its Stamp on Bravo

James Lipton soldiers on, hosting the venerable Inside the Actors Studio. And artsy movies like Places of the Heart still get prime time billing. But Bravo, now under NBC's stewardship, is quickly sprucing up the place.

Usually, when cable networks change hands, it takes many months for changes to be evident. MTV Networks took its time fixing up the old Nashville Network after renaming it The National Network and finally morphing it into the new TNN. More than a year after Walt Disney Co. coughed up $5.2 billion for the former Fox Family Channel, ABC Family is just now forging its new identity.

Yet, just two months after NBC closed its $1.25 billion acquisition of Bravo from Cablevision and MGM, the tinkering is evident.

Some of the effects are slight. Bravo's on-air promotions look sharper. Selected programming, like its Cirque du Soleil: The Fire Within
series, has been plugged on NBC.

Then there are some bolder moves. NBC's drug-cartel drama Kingpin
is being replayed on Bravo (The broadcast network apparently has some uncertainty that viewers have heard of Bravo. Announcing the rebroadcasts, an NBC voiceover explains that viewers can go to the "Bravo cable channel" to see it).

Another NBC drama, Boomtown, will rerun on Bravo in March in a weekend marathon. And, come next year, Bravo will be loaded up with Olympics action from the Athens Games.

"We are going to do quite a bit more experimenting this year," promises Jeff Gaspin, NBC's head of alternative programming and now Bravo programming chief. His deputy is Bravo SVP of Programming Frances Berwick, a leftover from Bravo's Cablevision days who made the move to NBC.

NBC's Potent Weapons

Gaspin, who programmed VH1 during its hot streak in the late 1990s, favors shows that grab attention, maybe even make headlines. To get there with Bravo, he is plotting original movies and series, theme weeks, and stunts.

The first move is reality series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, in which five gay men make over a straight man. It was one of six pilots he inherited from Bravo's previous owner and the only one that got the greenlight.

With NBC behind it now, Bravo wields some potent weapons. Gaspin can repurpose NBC shows. He can use powerful promotional time on NBC to lure viewers to thinly viewed Bravo, which averages about a 0.4 Nielsen rating in prime time. And it can forge ahead with projects the mother network is not ready to do: for example, NBC plans to launch 24-hour high-definition channel, Bravo HD, this summer.

But Gaspin wants to be clear: Bravo is not NBC 2.

"We want Bravo to stand for a certain point of view and attitude," Gaspin said. Arts and entertainment programming, he says, will remain a major component. But he wants to add dashes of style and pop-culture programming. One example, he suggested, could be a special on the reality-TV craze itself , albeit from a high-brow Bravo perspective: What makes these shows popular? What are the "stars" really like? Why do seemingly intelligent people agree to do such stupid things?

"It's important that Bravo not just be historical and so upscale and sophisticated that it doesn't tap into what the mass audience is interested in," Gaspin said.

He contends that only 15% of Bravo's schedule will be NBC fare. And when Bravo does repurpose NBC shows, he believes they should be infused with fresh footage or wrap-around programming.

Saltier Kingpin

For example, after the first reruns of Kingpin
Bravo next month will show an alternative version (or "director's cut," as NBC likes to call it) loaded up with racier content, language that wouldn't cut it on broadcast television, and partial nudity. Gaspin explains none of it will be "as extreme as HBO or Showtime."

A little less daring example of "value-added" repurposing was Bravo's replay of the Golden Globe Awards.
On Bravo, it was accompanied by a special on the awards' 60-year history.

These efforts make repurposing more palatable, said Kathryn Thomas, associate director of entertainment for ad firm Starcom Entertainment. "It's important," she said, "to add value for the viewer because normally repurposing can dilute."

But a rival programmer says the changes just masquerade plain old reruns. "Bravo doesn't create any identity with Kingpin," the executive said. "It should be about what is right for the Bravo brand."

NBC envisions the repurposing working in two directions. Bravo's Queer Eye, which debuts in July, may repeat on NBC in the summer, possibly on Saturday night, Gaspin said. It will also be promoted on NBC's air.

With the NBC-Bravo combination, says Queer Eye
executive producer David Collins, "I'm going to get promotion and marketing now from a broadcast network for a cable show." (That sort of thing can backfire: Affiliates' hackles often are raised when the mother network invites viewers to change channels.)

Adds Homes

NBC is working to bulk up Bravo's distribution. Since the deal closed before Christmas, NBC Cable has added 2 million new subscribers for Bravo, bringing its count to 70 million.

One enticement for MSOs could be the new Bravo HD service, which will carry a mix of original and acquired fare. Pricing for it is still in flux because NBC expects some operators to offer it à la carte and others in HD packages.

So far, Bravo's 0.4 rating is the same as in its Cablevision days. The first two episodes of Kingpin
on Feb. 7 earned about the same marks. A recent Inside the Actors Studio
The Simpsons
characters, though, perked up to a 0.9 rating (NBC did not promote that show).

"We're not looking to get a 2.0 rating on Bravo," insists NBC Cable President David Zaslav. "We're looking for consistently strong programming and will build the brand in the niche."

Bravo may get some ratings relief from The West Wing. The drama was supposed to hit Bravo this fall, but Gaspin is moving it up to the summer. He says NBC will promote the Bravo syndicated run.

The network is pressured to make the West Wing acquisition work after coughing up a rich $1.2 million per episode for off-net rights. Rainbow Media execs expected the show to get a 0.7 to 1.0 rating. With NBC promotion, ratings could be slightly higher.