Cable TV Networks Rebrand For New Viewers, Ad Dollars

But Will These Facelifts Work?

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It's makeover season for cable -- the time of year when a handful of networks look to make noise by giving themselves some plastic surgery. While some of these makeovers are major facelifts, others are just touchups of Botox. Either way there's the acknowledgement that what they were doing previously has grown stale, become limiting or, sometimes, gone too far.

As a result, TVGN, The Hub and Discovery Fit & Health are now getting new names; Boomerang is repositioning itself in the kids' space; and Oxygen, We TV and TruTV are redefining their core programming strategies and target viewers.

The moves come as the competition for viewers grows increasingly heated, with cable networks fighting for viewers not only against broadcasters but streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube. That makes it more important for cable brands to have a focused, identifiable message that appeals to both viewers and advertisers. The trick is staying focused while still expanding your audience. Some cable networks are remaking their brands after losing focus, while others became too broad or adopted copycat programming.

But viewers and advertisers can't be fooled easily -- slapping new names, logos or catchy taglines on a brand isn't enough to claim reinvention. It ultimately all comes down to the shows a network carries.

"Programming tends to lead the way, not the rebrand," said David Campanelli, senior VP-national broadcast, Horizon Media.

The rebrands that typically catch advertisers' attention are the ones where the network dramatically changes direction. Mr. Campanelli pointed to the revamp of NBC Universal's Style Network as Esquire last year and A&E Networks' Bio Channel becoming FYI Network last summer.

These types of rebrands open a parent company to a new well of advertisers, said Sam Armando, senior VP-director of strategic intelligence at Publicis Groupe's SMGx. The rebrand of Bio as the lifestyle-focused FYI, for example, gave A&E Networks the opportunity to bring in marketers in categories such as home retail that perhaps the company couldn't tap as directly with its History, A&E and Lifetime networks.

And for marketers, it opened up another avenue of lifestyle entertainment programming in which to advertise, Mr. Armando added.

That was one of TruTV's main goals when it decided to refocus the brand on more of a comedic approach to reality TV, building off the success of shows like "Impractical Jokers." With the new tagline, "Way more fun," TruTV is looking to bring in advertisers who want to align themselves with more positive attributes versus the conflict-heavy reality shows it predominantly aired previously, said Chris Linn, president and head of programming, TruTV. (Turner Broadcasting's TruTV itself is a rebrand of Court TV, which had focused far more narrowly on crime and court proceedings.)

"One of the first things I heard from ad sales when I joined about a year ago is the need to change the downscale perception of the channel," he said. At the time TruTV was airing derivatives of other reality shows like "Container Wars" and "Hardcore Pawn."

TruTV has greenlit 14 new shows that have more of a comedic bent, including competition series "Fake Off" and advice show "How to Be a Grownup." It will premiere six of its new shows next week.

While it's still early in the rebrand, Mr. Linn said the network has seen an uptick in automotive financial and tech advertisers.

Nearly 15% of Oxygen's upfront revenue came from new advertisers drawn in by its rebrand, according to the network.

And We TV has seen an influx in advertisers in categories like autos, financials, telecom and quick service restaurants since it rebranded in June, said Marc Juris, president and general manager. It has also added new advertisers like KFC and Dominos as clients.

"Rebrands give a reason for people to re-evaluate the network with a different eye and a different look," Mr. Juris said.

Of course, the most important thing is to deliver on the promise with programming that does what it sets out to do, Mr. Juris added.

Mr. Campanelli said he takes a wait-and-see approach with most TV rebrands to determine whether the programming will back up a network's new look and avowed new direction.

While most channels have seen at least some uptick in viewership after rebranding, few have been able to drastically grow their audience base. "I can't think of any instance where a network rebrand has made a huge difference," Mr. Armando said.

Discovery Communications' Military Channel changed its name to American Heroes Channel in March, broadening its programming from largely military-themed documentaries to highlighting heroes from all walks of life. Before the rebrand, Military averaged about 194,000 total viewers in prime-time; since flipping the switch earlier in the year, American Heroes is attracting about 236,000 viewers on any given night.

Destination America added another 25,000 viewers in prime-time since replacing Planet Green in 2012, and FYI Network is currently averaging 163,000 viewers in prime-time up, from the roughly 151,000 that watched Bio.

But Esquire Network has lost 35% of Style Network's audience since rebranding in September 2013, although it has grown its audience in its new target of upscale men.

It's a delicate balance to both retain the core audience while appealing to a broader base.

We TV's Mr. Juris said rebrandings shouldn't usually bring a wholesale change, but rather gradual shifts. Some cable networks in the past have taken an aggressive approach to rebrands, only to step back after a big chunk of viewers disappear.

TruTV, however, is taking the more dramatic course. The network canceled most of its prior series to make room for those six new shows arriving next week. When the network introduces the new TruTV to viewers next week, Mr. Linn said, it doesn't want to present a slow trickle of new programming mixing with the old.

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