NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- For decades, cable has touted itself as a vast collection of TV channels that caters to niche interests: over here, a channel for music fans; over there, an outlet for aficionados of reality programming, luxury living, outdoor adventure or tales of science fiction. But in recent months, TV viewers have seen any number of maneuvers that show how much harder it is to play narrowly in the world of the set-top box.
The Hallmark Channel recently began to devote a significant portion of its programming day to shows from domestic-arts guru Martha Stewart and will run original episodes of her flagship program in September. Fox Cable Networks has transformed its Fox Reality Channel to National Geo Wild, a sibling to the National Geographic Channel it co-owns. And Scripps Networks plans in May to launch the Cooking Channel, scrapping its Fine Living Network in the process. Add to this any number of recent moves -- Discovery Communications building its much-anticipated Oprah Winfrey Network out of its Discovery Health channel, or NBC Universal's Syfy outfit opting to show programming less tied to its operating thematic presence -- and it's becoming clear that cable is trying to become more of a mass vehicle.
"Ten years ago, you were pretty much able to bring anything to market," said Derek Baine, a senior analyst at SNL Kagan, who points to spin-off channels of the Discovery network as well as Viacom's MTV and VH1. Now, he added, "what we are finding is that a lot of these networks don't get Nielsen ratings until they have been on the air for five or 10 years, and the proof is in the pudding. When they actually get the rating, a lot of the ratings on these networks that have launched a decade ago have really been terrible."
At Crown Media's Hallmark, executives wanted to align the Hallmark brand with celebrating and holidays, but the channel was running programs such as "M*A*S*H" and "Walker, Texas Ranger," explained Bill Abbott, president-CEO, Hallmark Channels. So the message was muddied. Now, with programming from the doyenne of domesticity focusing on celebrations and get-togethers, Hallmark can better align its network with its broader business.
Cable channels trying to lure audiences of enough size to attract advertisers face a new challenge, Mr. Abbott said: While many of the most obvious central themes have been taken, cable outlets that target "very, very specified audiences" have a "tough model to support."
According to Nielsen data, both the live and live-plus-same-day 18-49 audiences for prime-time ad-supported cable have shown slight declines between 2008 and 2009. Audience erosion combined with advertiser uncertainty in a tough economy are likely to prompt all kinds of media to better define themselves and their fans.
As such, many networks have taken on improvement projects. Executives at Scripps Networks felt Fine Living Network had become a hodgepodge of different topics -- cooking, lifestyle, travel. The network "had been pretty stable for the past three of four years," said Michael Smith, general manger of the Cooking Channel, but "there didn't seem to be a huge upside with the network."
The move made sense, given that Scripps had recently acquired The Travel Channel and could air programs about travel there. But the decision also points to a new mandate for cable outlets: consumers have to understand what the channel is all about -- instantly. "The consumer doesn't have time to click on each [channel] and figure out what's on," he said, "so you just want your channel to be a little better defined." By hitching the Cooking Channel to a more basic premise -- cooking -- Scripps has a companion to its Food Network and doesn't risk bringing in smaller swaths of audience, each looking for something different.