LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- A click of the cable dial these days might confuse the average viewer trying to match a show's brand with its corresponding network.
"Carnie Wilson: Unstapled," a documentary series about the Wilson Phillips singer's life as a mom and businesswoman after gastric-bypass surgery, seems like a fit for TLC or VH1. In fact, it airs on GSN, the Game Show Network.
"Pawn Stars," a reality show about modern-day pawnbrokers and their quirky appraisals, seems like a natural fit for PBS, home of "Antique Roadshow," or even The Discovery Channel. It airs on History.
What happened to cable as a place for long-tail niche brands? Maybe it's a factor of maturity, as many networks now are fully distributed in more than 80 million homes and have access to enough potential viewers to compete more directly with their broadcast counterparts. Or maybe it's just a smart business decision -- most cable networks saw record-high ratings and ad revenues in 2009 on the strength of diverse schedules that often strayed beyond their core brand names.
Here's a look at four cable networks who have broadened their brands' definitions in recent years and the impact on their businesses.
As it approached the post-"Battlestar Galactica" media landscape in 2009, the Sci-Fi Channel needed to look beyond just TV to truly own science-fiction entertainment on all platforms. But it needed a name it could monetize and license globally, since "sci-fi" had become too much of a catch-all term. Desperate for a change but not wanting to lose years of brand equity, Sci-Fi President Dave Howe settled on Syfy, a respelling that kept the name intact, introduced the network's tagline, "Imagine greater," and initiated the brand's entrance into the gaming space (upcoming alternate-reality game "Trion") and kids entertainment ("de Blob," a gaming partnership with THQ). The shift enabled shows like "Warehouse 13," "Ghost Hunters" and "Destination Truth" to become three of the highest-rated in the network's history.
"We don't want to be in the niche space; we want to be in general entertainment," Mr. Howe said. "If you look at the box office, seven of the 10 [highest grossing] movies every year are in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, so that really is the most mainstream genre there is. We want to be a network that everyone comes to, if not once a week, at least when a show works for them -- as opposed to being way down the dial."
The highest-rated network on cable is also the broadest in terms of programming -- on any given week you can find a "WWE Smackdown" match, an original episode of "Burn Notice," "Psych" or "White Collar" or a "Character Approved" vignette on "Hurt Locker" director Kathryn Bigelow or pop-punk band Green Day. It's all bunched under "Characters welcome," a tagline the network created in 2005 as a branding slogan to incorporate wrestling, original programming and, at the time, coverage of events such as the U.S. Open and the Westminster Dog Show. "While the range of our quality programming is broad, everything that we do is evaluated through the criteria of our brand filter; strong character, unique concept, aspirational tone and a clear and marketable hook," said Chris McCumber, USA's exec VP-marketing, digital and brand strategy. "Through our 'Characters welcome' branding strategy, USA has successfully leveraged a general entertainment appeal that conveys a consistent message about who we are to our audiences and advertisers."
The former (and, to an extent, still current) destination for documentaries on everything from the Civil War to King Tut gave itself a modern rebrand in 2007 with "Ice Road Truckers," its highest-rated original series but one of the most perplexing for history enthusiasts. Successive series like "Ax Men" and the current "Pawn Stars" also redefined how the term "history" could be defined. History President Nancy Dubuc said the focus has always been on quality and authenticity, now it's just on more entertaining terms. "We executed history incredibly well in a narrow selection of ancient, military and cultural topics, but brands need to evolve to survive. I think our evolution is not to [avoid] those subjects, it's to complement those subjects with more types of programming."
The former Court TV built its brand in the wake of the O.J. Simpson trial and other streaming celebrity court coverage, but it failed to find an audience outside of news events. A 2007 rebrand to focus on more reality TV-style programming got off to a slow start but gained real traction in 2009 with "Operation Repo," which became the network's highest-rated original series, and other reality fare like "Black Gold," "Conspiracy Theory With Jesse Ventura" and "Rehab: Party at the Hard Rock Hotel." The network has also distanced itself enough from the Turner portfolio that it's getting its first dedicated upfront event in New York in April.
TruTV was the third in a series of rebrands Turner gave its sibling networks TNT and TBS in 2006 to focus on drama and comedy, respectively. Steve Koonin, Turner's head of programming, recently said at a panel in Hollywood, "When you're named after the creator [of the networks] ... to the consumer, that's alphabet soup, it doesn't mean anything," he said.