Viacom Takes TNN National

Time Warner Inc. and USA Networks Inc. have a 56-year head start on Viacom Inc. in the general-entertainment cable network business, if you combine the tenure of TNT, TBS Superstation and USA Network.

But Viacom, which plans to begin marketing its recently acquired TNN as The National Network this week, thinks it will have a key advantage over USA and the Turner networks: a consistent brand that can attract middle America.

"TNN is going to be the general-entertainment network, but a branded one. It's going to be Viacom's play in that sort of arena," MTV Networks chairman Tom Freston said.

"This isn't going to be some slicked-up, hipped-up, urban type of network, but will have very much a sort of populist middle-America flavor. It's not yet another network for New York or Los Angeles."

MTV Networks announced it would change the longtime moniker of TNN: The Nashville Network to The National Network last Tuesday, one day after the Delaware Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision that allowed

Viacom and World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc. to move forward with a wide-ranging strategic alliance.

Basic cable's top-rated program, the WWF'sRaw is War, will move from USA to TNN starting tonight (Sept. 25). USA plans to replace its No. 1 show with movies and specials, kicking off tonight withBreaking the Magician's Code: Magic's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed.

MTV also decided to revamp the executive ranks at TNN, and move the network's headquarters from Nashville to New York.

TNN president David Hall, who survived the shakeup following Viacom's merger with CBS in June, resigned last week. MTV officials said Hall, a longtime CBS Cable veteran, chose not to relocate to New York.

Nickelodeon and TV Land president Herb Scannell will add oversight of TNN to his plate. Scannell named Nickelodeon veteran Diane Robina as TNN's new general manager.

In addition to TNN, Robina will run program acquisition for Nick at Nite and TV Land. "One of the great advantages we have is we are going to be the best buyer in all of television," said Scannell, suggesting that the company would seek volume discounts for the shows it will acquire for multiple networks.

MTV executives said they plan to add original series and movies to the new TNN, along with off-network dramas and comedies. Freston, who said Viacom would increase TNN's budget by "tens of millions of dollars," said the network would work closely with Viacom's Paramount Television Group on new series.

He also said that TNN would also team with CBS Sports to jointly acquire sports programs for network and cable distribution.

Some of TNN's country-music shows will shift to sister network Country Music Television, but executives said they haven't decided which new programs they'll add, or which will be kicked over to CMT.

But TNN will hold onto some core properties, such asProfessional Bull Riding, and "The Dukes of Hazzardwill be a centerpiece of our promotion," Freston said. The network's new series18 Wheels of Justicewill also remain, he added.

Freston said he hopes the network's WWF programming will have a halo effect on ratings for other shows, but emphasized that the "WWF is not going to be the centerpiece programming."

"By no means are we going to become the wrestling network, or the entertainment-sports network," Freston said.

TNN will target adults aged 18 to 49, Freston said. Although he and Scannell were mum on details of the new shows, both executives said the lineup would consistently target the white-collar, middle-American audience.

"We don't want this to be viewed as just a place that runs a bunch of shows that are seemingly unrelated," Freston said. "There will be a thread between them that the promotion will seize on and accentuate."

Mark Masenheimer, assistant general manager at Palmterton, Pa.-based MSO Pencor Services, said the WWF addition was key for TNN, because the network will lose its popular National Association for Stock Car Racing events next year to Turner Sports, FX, Fox and NBC. (MTVN also said last week that it plans to divest the 13 NASCAR Thunder retail stores that TNN operates nationwide).

With respect to the format change, Masenheimer said he's not concerned about subscribers' reaction to the likelihood of TNN moving shows likeGrand Ole Opry Liveto CMT, which Pencor also carries.

"As long as the programming is available, and you can just point" subscribers to the new channel, it shouldn't be an issue, Masenheimer said.

Meanwhile, USA released more details about the programs that will replace its WWF shows, after it lost its appeal in its breach-of-contract suit against WWFE and Viacom.

The network lost four series:Raw is War(now on TNN),Sunday Night Heat(which moves to MTV this weekend) and weekend morning programsWWF SuperstarsandWWF Livewire, both of which will run on TNN.

USA plans to replace the WWF with specials and movies. Following tonight'sBreaking the Magicians' Code, next week it will runUFOs: The Best Evidence EverandAlien Autopsy: Fact or Fictionduring its formerRawslot (9 p.m. to 11 p.m.).

USA plans to run the movieExcessive Forceduring this weekend'sSunday Night Heatslot. Upcoming movies that will run during theLivewireandSuperstarsslots includeIron EagleandAbsence of Malice.

Although USA lost its highest-rated programming to TNN and MTV, the company's appeal did thwart Viacom and WWFE's hopes to heavily market the transition far in advance of the move. WWF didn't begin promoting the channel switch until last Monday, and Freston acknowledged that the company expects the shows may take an initial ratings hit.

"I didn't want to spend millions and millions of dollars promoting something that ultimately we might not have, or might be involved in yet some other kind of legal delay," Freston said when asked why the company waited until last week to market the WWF move.

TNN's WWF acquisition has helped the company pick up some additional distribution. One of the network's biggest distribution holes before the WWF deal was on Time Warner Cable's New York City system, where 200,000 subscribers in Northern Manhattan didn't have TNN.

Freston said last week the broad carriage deal that Viacom struck with Time Warner in August included a commitment to launch TNN in Manhattan.

With Viacom pouring millions of dollars into TNN, should cable operators expect a rate hike?

"Right now, we don't have any plans to force any kind of unilateral rate hike for TNN," Freston said. "We deal with those on a case-by-case basis as our contracts expire."