TNN, ABC Family Try New Fixes

New York— Relaunching and rebranding a cable network is no cakewalk, as Viacom Inc. and The Walt Disney Co. have learned.

Viacom inherited TNN: The Nashville Network when it merged with CBS Corp. almost three years ago. Attempts to transform it from a country-music network into a pop-culture general entertainment service — first as The National Network, then as The New TNN — fizzled. Viacom has now made plans to turn TNN into the first men's network, a new format some skeptics question.

Disney acquired Fox Family Channel, formerly the Rev. Pat Robertson's The Family Channel, for $5.2 billion in fall 2001. The Mouse House's efforts to repurpose ABC Television Network programming on the cable outlet have tallied mixed results at best. And the brand is still amorphous.

Brands plus

Last week, Viacom and Disney laid out their latest plans to fix what ails TNN and ABC Family: to try to establish new brands with programming that will draw more viewers.

TNN will get a new moniker, Spike TV, effective June 16. A slate of new male-targeted programming will join its lineup next year, as will a weekend block of lifestyle programming at 9 a.m. Saturdays and 11 p.m. Sundays.

ABC Family will get an infusion of new programming, including several new reality shows, like a reborn Dance Fever, and a new daily teen afternoon block from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

With the name Spike TV, TNN hopes to completely shake off its association with The Nashville Network and country, TNN president Albie Hecht said.

"It's a guy's name," he said. "It's smart, sexy. It's unapologetically male. It's active. It's sporty. It's got a contemporary feel to it.

"It's aggressive and it's irreverent, and those are all of the qualities we really want for the first network for men. Hopefully, it will produce a spike in the ratings."

'Fun' at Family

At an upfront press breakfast in New York last week, ABC Family president Angela Shapiro said the network's new focus is "fun, lighthearted entertainment with a twist."

With that in mind, ABC Family will develop scripts for six half-hour comedies and pick the best of them for series, said Linda Mancuso, senior vice president and head of programming.

ABC Family is a "huge priority" for Disney and its top executives, chairman Michael Eisner and president Robert Iger, according to Shapiro — and they are committed in terms of dollars. The cable channel's program budget this year is more than it was for the last two years, combined.

"For me, there's a lot of challenges, as you all know," Shapiro said. "It really helps when your bosses are on your side."

In the first quarter, ABC Family's primetime ratings were down 33 percent, to a 0.6 from a 0.9 a year ago, according to Nielsen Media Research data provided by the ABC Cable Networks Group.

TNN's numbers in primetime slid as well, by 20 percent, to a 0.8 from as 1.0 a year ago.

Ad buyer's take

To stem that erosion, TNN is launching an original animation block this summer, anchored by Stan Lee's Stripperella,
starring Pamela Anderson.

In the third quarter Spike TV will add short-form segments via partnerships with Men's Health
magazine, Stuff
magazine and CBS MarketWatch.

Spike TV will also add six new series to its roster, which will debut from December through March of next year. Those include Ride With Funkmaster Flex,
with the DJ and car enthusiast taking viewers into his world of car culture with guests like Eminem.

The new handle and transformation into a men's network drew mixed reactions.

"In terms of refocusing, there is a challenge, but they have the baseline to meet that challenge," said Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming for the Katz Television Group. "They are really more clearly defining what they are."

He liked the name change.

"What was TNN?" Carroll said. "They rebranded it as The National Network, and that was not a clear indication of what it was. Spike TV clearly says guys. It clearly says testosterone."

At least one media buyer was intrigued with Spike TV and its prospects for drawing men.

"Men don't watch a lot on TV to begin with," said Stacey Lynn Koerner, executive vice president and director of global research for Initiative Media. "They typically like programming that's more edgy, that's less narrative, that's more informative or has some sort of animation element. If Spike TV can capture that, I think they're onto something. And it's certainly an area where marketers will spend the money if you can prove you're bringing in the viewers."

Laura Caraccioli-Davis, vice president and director of SMG Entertainment, expressed some reservations about Spike TV.

"For the third time, we get another name for this network," she said. "And are there enough ad dollars to support it? To me, it sounds like beer, gaming and lots of snack food ads. And are you going to alienate 50 percent of the population [women]?"

For her part, Koerner believes ABC Family has a much tougher road ahead than TNN, in terms of establishing a real brand.

"It's a much more difficult proposition, because it's much more broad," she said. "They haven't changed the name or the branding in a significant way that's going to grab people's attention.

"There's not a unique proposition there," Koerner said. "You may find something that is palatable for your family to view, but likely to be something you've already seen on the ABC network."

Teen block

Looking to expand its teen audience, ABC Family on May 26 will launch "Teen XYX," a daily block airing from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Already set are two unscripted, The Brendan Leonard Show
and Switched?
Leonard is a 19-year-old who had a successful cable-access show in Chicago, while Switched?
involves two teens who swap roles and identities.

"They're trying to find a way to make themselves distinct," Carroll said. "They are moving away from the confusion of inheriting what Fox Family was and repurposing programming from ABC. The way to go about branding themselves is with original programming."