Guys will be guys--and cable likes it

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Skeptics may wonder if Viacom's MTV Networks waited too long for the rescue strategy to convert The National Network into the first-ever official men's cable TV channel.

As the rebranded Spike TV makes its debut next week, the cable spectrum is already jam-packed with programming that appeals particularly to men, while women continue to dominate overall cable viewing.

"The Man Show" on Viacom sibling Comedy Central, "The Howard Stern Show" on E! Entertainment Television, and a growing number of news and sports talk programs such as Fox Sports Net's "Best Damn Sports Show Period" have already staked their claim to men.

But the architects of Spike TV say it will build new advertising and pull viewers away from traditional men's programming by offering a 360-degree universe of TV for the male viewer, from hot babes and sports highlights to travel and apparel tips.

"There are slices of what guys want on ESPN, on The History Channel and Comedy Central, but never before has there been a place where a guy can have all his entertainment needs met on one channel," says Spike TV President Albie Hecht, the former MTV and Nickelodeon impresario who played a key role in hatching the Rugrats and SpongeBob SquarePants phenomena.

Some media observers still find it surprising that Viacom-with its vast cable programming expertise and resources-was unable to make TNN succeed as a general-audience network reaching 86 million households.

With its previous rebranding in 2000, the initials stayed the same but TNN's focus shifted from country music to more general programming. Nevertheless, TNN struggled to maintain momentum and its ratings dropped sharply in first quarter 2003.

"The latest efforts to rebrand this network raise questions about the future success of any general-audience cable network if Viacom was unable to make this work," says Brad Adgate, senior VP-director of research for Horizon Media, New York.

Even now, with its executives rhapsodizing about the value of niche programming, Spike TV can scarcely be accused of specializing too narrowly, as it goes after men between 18 and 54 years old, with a heavy emphasis on those under age 34.

WIDE NET

Joining in the repositioning is a mixed bag of partners for content tie-ins, ranging from Conde Nast Publications' upscale and older-skewing GQ and Dennis Publishing's more youth-appealing Stuff, to a possible animated series from radio shock jock Howard Stern and hefty doses of such current offerings as "Star Trek," World Wrestling Entertainment and action movies. Spike TV comes off as casting the widest possible net for male viewers.

Mr. Hecht is now in talks to secure the rights to run highlights of NCAA basketball games broadcast on Viacom sibling CBS, which would be a major coup against Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN. CBS MarketWatch will also supply short, money-themed updates for Spike.

For a TV outlet, Spike seems to have the welcome mat out for print experts in reaching guys. In addition to Stuff, magazines such as Wenner Media's Men's Journal and Rodale's Men's Health seem eager to participate in content-sharing deals to promote their titles and boost cross-promotional activity. Men's Journal will illuminate adventure travel, Men's Health promises workout tips, while Stuff may end up with as many as three different programs touting high-tech gear and must-have amenities.

Stuff sibling Maxim, a groundbreaker in magazines' "laddie" segment, is so far not represented on the cable network. Although Maxim has trademarked "Men's Entertainment Network" for its own possible, separate foray into cable, nothing has taken shape yet, says a Maxim spokesman.

Animated series will be an entertainment staple on Spike TV. Among them, comic book maestro Stan Lee and actress Pamela Anderson are joining forces for "Stripperella"; comic John Leguizamo is creating a cartoon based on goofball film buffs who work at a video rental store; Kelsey Grammer is providing his voice to "Gary the Rat"; and new episodes of "Ren & Stimpy" are promised.

AH, THE MISSING LINK

Despite its all-over-the-map programming and recent ratings troubles, executives at the former TNN insist it has steadily evolved to be the No. 5 cable network among male viewers, and the missing link all along in finding its true audience was redefining it with an edgy brand.

"In the last 18 months, we knew we were drawing huge numbers of men, but we were competing in a commodity marketplace for [costs per thousand]," says David Lawenda, senior VP-ad sales for Spike TV. "Our audience composition among young men is very solid, and we needed to pull together a new identity that tells viewers and advertisers what we are."

Competitors are taking a wait-and-see attitude before they feel threatened.

"It's a clever strategy to announce you're going after men, because it's an open secret that if you say you're targeting men, you're going to get a lot of women as well, and advertisers are happy," says Mark Sonnenberg, exec VP at E!, majority-owned by Comcast Corp. and Disney. E! has a lock on telecasts of Howard Stern's show, and the cable net's "Wild On" series also draws large numbers of male viewers.

Although the aim is to make Spike "unapologetically male," technically the network will have 30% to 35% female viewers, says Mr. Hecht.

"We're getting new categories such as auto imports, and we expect to get new quick-service restaurant and even consumer package-goods advertisers, among traditional advertisers that target men, such as beer marketers," says Mr. Lawenda. Yum! Brands` Taco Bell, General Motors Corp. and Pepsi-Cola Co. are among advertisers expressing interest in continuing strong commitments with the network, he says.

Targeting is definitely critical, and there's untapped potential in targeting men, says Lynn Picard, who has expertise in reaching the other gender as exec VP-sales for the women-oriented Lifetime cable network. Lifetime claims at least 30% of its viewers are men. "Programming is becoming increasingly segmented," she says, "and viewers gravitate toward networks that have a clear, tangible brand identity-you can't be generic and succeed anymore."

Focus on

The evolution of Spike TV:

1983

The Nashville Network is created as a country music/lifestyle cable network.

2000

May-Viacom gets TNN as part of its acquisition of CBS.

September-TNN is recast as general entertainment The National Network.

2001

TNN now part of MTV Networks and is positioned as The New TNN.

2003

June 16-Spike TV officially debuts as "the first network for men."

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