Viacom's Spike TV has carved out a niche with its "first network for men" mantra and is building momentum with the advertisers who covet the demographic, say industry watchers. The channel is now readying a wave of original programming, a revamp of its Web site and more on-air graphics that try to talk like a guy's best buddy.
Its average viewership increased steadily in the last year, from 139,000 viewers in September 2003 to 220,000 this September, according to Nielsen Media Research. Among the coveted 18-to-49-year-old male demographic, ratings were up 25% this September over last year, the network says.
"For a network that basically turned off the lights and turned them back on, they've joined the consideration set in a short time," says Tim Spengler, exec VP-director for national broadcast at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative. "They need a hit show or two, which will have a halo effect on the whole schedule."
Spike's previous iterations were numerous. It was the Nashville Network, featuring country stars and music videos, and then the general-entertainment National Network. It became TNN and, under early Viacom control, "the new" TNN, a pop-culture channel.
The genesis of Spike TV came last year, when executives, led by President Albie Hecht, settled on the brand identity. They got slapped with a lawsuit from director Spike Lee for co-opting his well-known first name. The battle stoked publicity, even while delaying the network's rollout for months.
"First we said, `Let's get the brand right,"' says Kevin Kay, Spike TV's exec VP-programming and production. "We changed the logo, the on-air look, the programming-everything to constantly drive home that message."
In a little more than a year, awareness of Spike's positioning has increased to 90% among general TV watchers, the network says. A few shows have generated heat, like season one of the faux-reality series "The Joe Schmo Show." (Others, such as "Stan Lee's Stripperella" with Pamela Anderson, did not.) The stunt-heavy import series "MXC"-as in "Most Extreme Challenge"-continues to draw audiences and help define the brand as the channel looks for more standout shows, network execs say. The network plans to bring back its video game awards show in December with a stepped-up celebrity presence, more marketing partners and Snoop Dogg as host.
At the same time, WWE executives are shopping their five hours of weekly programming for a possible move next year. It's unknown if the WWE will leave Spike, but Monday night's "WWE Raw" remains one of cable's best-rated shows.
Among the upcoming fare: "I Hate My Job," hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton, in which men get the chance to pursue a dream, and "American Startup," a "Project Greenlight" for business. "The Club," a behind-the-scenes look at a Vegas nightclub called Ice, hits next month, as does a Marv Albert-hosted documentary series called "Untold."
"Invasion Iowa," from the "Schmo" producers, plopped William Shatner down in an Iowa town under the ruse of filming a sci-fi feature. Also on tap is a Saturday-night block with a demolition derby-esque show and "Boom," where the "American Chopper" creators blow things up.
On-air creative has included 10-second network IDs dubbed "man-isms" (example: "It's not broken, it's broken in"). The musings of a fictional blogger will start crawling across the screen, ticker style, next year.
About 100 new brands committed to Spike during the upfront market. Among them: Mercedes-Benz, Visa International, Mazda, Virgin Mobile, Levi's and Cingular. Indie studio Lion's Gate plans an exclusive sneak peek at its horror flick "Saw" on the channel.
Omnicom Group's Full Circle Entertainment is involved in two projects in the works for the channel- "The Club," launching Nov. 10, and a reality show based on the Ultimate Fighting Championship for January. Marketers including Heineken and Allied Domecq have made brand integration and promotional deals for "The Club." Robert Riesenberg, who heads Full Circle, said the network's attraction for the brand partners was obvious.
"It's one of the best places you can be" to reach young men, Mr. Riesenberg says. "You know what you're buying."