How to Rebuild A Cable Network
You’ve just gotten the green light to rebrand your widely distributed cable network. Here’s your step-by-step guide to the perfect makeover
By Melissa Grego and Claire Atkinson -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/29/2010 12:00:00 AM
The cable business has a long history of rebranding networks— with dozens of hits and misses alike to show for it. Oftentimes, it’s a new owner calling for a rebrand in an attempt to grow a new asset. Or perhaps a network has simply hit a rut, or its owners are looking for some fresh attention or a different focus.
And with big media companies sitting on larger piles of cash in an improving market, more cable channel owners seem ready to ride this wave. Executives at Discovery and News Corp. have made it known that they’re most interested in focusing their attention on their core businesses, so there may be some pruning of network assets. Crown Media’s Hallmark Channel is one name continually floated as a possible acquisition. Hallmark is also repositioning in a lifestyle vein.
Beware the Three-Headed Customer Base
And then there’s the pressure to get it right. You get only one shot every few years, one chance to avoid the label of the network that cried “rebrand.”
But if you do nail it, the payoff is huge. Take NBCU’s USA Network, now estimated to bring in $1.7 billion in revenue in 2010, according to Bernstein Research.
“USA is the best example of a rebrand,” says Lee Hunt, a specialist consultant in the cable-branding sector. “They built it on characters and built out a social networking site, and it’s been number-one for years. Before, it was just a dual entertainment channel.”
According to Hunt, the business of niche channels evolves only to a point; viewer growth hits a ceiling because of the limited audience, and then those niche ideas turn to a broader concept. “Bravo was arts; it became pop culture. Turner’s CourtTV became TruTV, and then Food Network, whose tag was about them being way more than cooking, is now starting a cooking channel.”
On the flip side, Hunt observes general entertainment channels moving toward a more defined niche, such as TBS’ hold on comedy or TNT’s on drama. “Everybody wants the reach of a general entertainment channel and the focus of a niche,” he says, arguing further that every channel seems to be reaching for this vaunted middle ground: general entertainment with a point of view.
Turner Entertainment Networks President Steve Koonin believes that establishing a clear POV for a brand is crucial for driving tune-in. “When you have a network that’s not well branded, you’re only able to sell shows you have on the air,” he says. His track record proves the point: Koonin’s purview includes the top-five cable networks TNT and TBS, the nonrated TCM, and TruTV, which in the two years since Koonin took over has jumped from being cable’s 17th-place finisher in delivery of adults 18-49, to being ranked in the top 10 for first quarter 2010, according to Turner research. “When you have a brand that’s a destination, you have people who will always come and check you out,” Koonin says.
Getting a brand right matters to marketers, too, Koonin adds: “We’ve made this statement before and I live by it: How do you trust your brand with networks that don’t even have their own self branded?”
A strong brand also presents the opportunity to create new, non-linear revenue. Koonin points to his own comedy festival that sprung from the TBS “Very Funny” brand, as well as ESPN’s radio assets and restaurants, as examples.
That said, there are plenty of ways to do it, as so many success stories have proved. So, if you find yourself with a network in some 80 million homes and marching orders to beef up that asset, here’s what you need to do.
1. Define Your Brand
THIS FIRST STEP is the biggest in any brand relaunch, and a delicate process at that. It’s also where the chances are highest for fatal errors. It is the basis for all that you will do.
One of the most common mistakes in this process is thinking it’s as simple as deciding to target a particular demographic, say executives with the most successful branding track records. “For millennials,” in other words, is not a brand. “If you want to play above the rim, and you want to succeed in what is a very successful time in top 30 cable, you need to be fi ring on all cylinders,” says Lauren Zalaznick, president of NBC Universal Women and Lifestyle Entertainment Networks; she oversees Bravo Media, Oxygen Media and iVillage as well as the Green Is Universal, Women@NBCUniversal and Healthy@NBCUniversal initiatives. “The demo is the cost of entry.”
Rather, the architecture of a brand strategy uses the definition of a target demo as one building block, according to Zalaznick, who counts Bravo and Oxygen among her successes. “My businesses have never been built on the back of a general target demo,” she says. “There are brand strategies that are the giant architecture into which programming strategy, marketing strategy and sales strategy are built. It doesn’t define the brand and does not shape the brand. In part, it’s because a demo is exactly that. It’s a demographic, it states fact, it doesn’t state age or income, it doesn’t state any relativity that links people of a certain age to the essence of what they’d be coming to you for.”
In fact, what links people to your programming—their likemindedness— is vital to a successful brand architecture, Koonin says; you have to define whom you want to talk to. “There were lessons learned from the online world, that communities are like-minded people. Television is similar, it attracts likeminded people,” he says, adding that how a brand affects different people leads to the demography.
The key is understanding people’s mindsets. “We’re in a business of sales demographics, but we’re in a business that programs to psychographics,” Koonin says. “You have to do both.”
And you can’t be all things to all people in a particular age group. As Zalaznick puts it, it’s finding out how to connect with the million viewers within a demographic who will give you a hit, “or the several million in a demo who will give you a monstrous hit.” Fox News is arguably a testament to that observation.
Still, you have to start somewhere, and that’s often with a hit show, or a network’s most successful shows. Then the task is to research them—whom are they appealing to and why, says Koonin, who adds that he runs Turner Entertainment Networks with a deep emphasis on research. TNT’s dramaoriented branding sprang from research that indicated viewers of that network watch TV that “touches hearts and minds,” he says. Viewers of its sister comedy-oriented network TBS reported that they watched TV to lift their mood and used television as a stress reducer.
Kay Koplovitz, who launched USA and what was first called Sci Fi Channel, and now runs a media advisory practice, says that process can take time. She offers Viacom’s Spike as an example: “When you look at all the iterations prior to Spike, they finally got it right. It takes time to change brands, and I think they finally did arrive in the right place.”
When Zalaznick took over Oxygen in 2007, she zeroed in on its popular series, Bad Girls Club and Tori & Dean. She ultimately expanded them from a half-hour to an hour and examined how the viewers responded. Viewership exploded. During upfronts in spring 2008, Oxygen’s new tagline and look were revealed: Out went the pink and the “Exhale” branding; in came the bold yellow graphics and “Live Out Loud” slogan.
She also experimented by pegging live online community events to the shows and started to learn about the network’s core of 18-34 female viewers. They’re looking for a little release from their day with mindless, guilty-pleasure fun, Zalaznick and her team discovered. Those women are living a particularly tumultuous time in their lives, setting out on a career, romance, family, perhaps buying a home over the course of those 15 or so years.
Koplovitz considers Oxygen one of cable’s most recent successful evolutions. “It’s smart, there’s more clarity, it’s a little in your face and younger,” she says. “There’s been a step up in recent years, just refining and adding more power to the actual positioning statement. It’s going after [a] female audience that appreciates tongue in cheek.”
All that said, before you get too far down any one road on a network repaving, scour your contracts to anticipate the programming requirements that, if violated, could backfire. Many networks’ carriage agreements include content clauses with such requirements. Any rebrand will be aimed at growing subscriber fees and distribution, not giving a multichannel video provider an opportunity to call you out on a contract infraction.
And depending on how a network was started, it may have requirements of its own. Just ask the folks at ABC Family, which has to air 700 Club, a throwback to its roots with founder Pat Robertson.
2. Hire and Fire
THIS AXIOM APPLIES TO SHOWS, and sometimes to personnel as well. Once you’ve devised your brand architecture, you need to fi nd more shows that exemplify your brand so you can continue building the expectation of what viewers will find. It could be acquired programming, but you need to get a fresh lineup on the air—quickly. If you relaunch a network with fanfare and brand promises with one show, viewers, cable operators and Madison Avenue will all call your bluff.
On the flip side, if something in your lineup doesn’t fit, don’t be afraid to dump it. “If you’re going to be a brand, you have to think some things don’t fit,” says Koonin, who canceled his top-rated program, World Championship Wrestling’s WCW Monday Nitro, when rebranding TNT in 2001.
Chances are you will need some new blood to get the job done. You will need experts on the kind of programming that illuminates your brand—and experts on marketing your brand to your viewership and distribution and marketing clients. Those human resources may exist in the staff you inherit, but they also may not. Having the right strategy may be key, but you have to do the research to make sure you have the goods to execute it.
AS YOU FIND SUCCESS with a great brand environment, you have to proselytize it. “If you don’t know your sales biz, you don’t deserve to be here, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t,” Zalaznick says. “If you really want to play above the level of everyone else, you have to insist on sharing proof points whether your consumer is the viewer or ad partner. Prove it over and over and over again. We’re happy to talk every day about it and prove every day we need to.”
Zalaznick’s points about her brands roll off the tongue like so many versions of The Real Housewives. “My message is always about authenticity. Be your brand,” she explains. “It’s like people describe Bravo: It’s like being invited to the best party you never got invited to, but now incredibly welcome at a high-end exclusive event.”
She says this upfront season is really the second for Oxygen on her watch, but the first with big show successes: “We still need to do a very good job of introducing people to this new girl in class.”
4. Stick With It
HUNT, KOONIN AND ZALAZNICK all agree that no matter how tempting it may be to chase a hot programming concept, it’s more important to stay consistent and on brand for the long haul.
“I don’t think you can actually dismantle a brand in one fell swoop, like banging an oven door,” Zalaznick says, “but you can destabilize it if you go too far in one direction. If you keep chasing the swinging pendulum, I’m pretty sure you will not win overall.”
Koonin, who spent many years at Coca-Cola in worldwide marketing, says that working for the enduring soda brand taught him the importance of consistency. “I am fascinated [by] and respect brand-centric networks that stay consistent rather than try to find the next hot thing,” he says. “Those are the networks that will have characteristic success.”
“We’re going to have ratings wins and losses,” Koonin adds. “There will be shows that work and we will stumble, too, but at the end of day, we’ll be doing the same thing tomorrow that we did yesterday, always illuminating the brand.”
Adds Hunt, “The hardest thing to do is to stand for one thing. It’s about trying to own a groove in someone’s brain. TNT has done that with drama, and there are some cable networks that are sensitive about using [the word “drama”] because they don’t want TNT to pick up the halo.”
5. Revise, Revise, Revise
WE REALLY HAVE very incremental operating plans that drive annual growth, and certainly we have longer-term plans,” Zalaznick says. “But the era of the fi ve-year growth plan is less relevant. That long-term plan today is a two-tothree- year strategic plan with a couple of big bets for fi ve to 10 years out. The work that goes into crafting either of these [will change] as plans change, not because we’re chasing a pendulum but because of the daily barrage of new information we get.”
As networks grow from being top 30 to top 20 and top 20 to top 10, executives running the networks “absolutely need to behave differently when we get there,” Zalaznick says. “But the fact is we behave differently every day on our way there— wherever that ‘there’ is.”
So, tell me:
How does TNT let FTvS cancell Saving Grace and NO ONE fought to keep the high rated, award winng show?
I get the concept of the article. I believe I was looking for advise on how to fight what many believe to be an insufferable event, the end of Saving Grace on TNT.
Can Fox sell Saving Grace just as a piece of property is sold? If so - why hasn't anyone stepped up?
Where does the comman man find answers from these networks that appear to be built on self inducted importance?
Anyone in the know care to share with a common ol South Carolinian who does NOT have a clue how Hollywood operates?
Why cancell a show that has attained #1 rankings for cable in it's time slot? Not to mention all the awards cast and crew have received.....
Still searching for answers desperatly!
Lynette A Carothers - 3/30/2010 10:16:41 PM EDT
Great article! I couldn't agree more. Seems like channels are rebranding all the time, but not all with the same level of success. I found a great summarized list of 2009 TV Rebrands here:
My favorites include the PBS, MTV, and NBC Rebrands. Really amazing!
Taisha B - 3/30/2010 6:01:48 PM EDT
“The Crime Channel” an exciting cable channel
concept that we have already test marketed on air, throughout the country, is now ready for a 24/7 relaunch!! The name is trademarked in the USA and other countries, and is a result of various different suggested names that our staff had suggested. We have found out that our name was widely accepted during the test market. It represents the totality of the genre in only 3 words and the initials "TCC" are easily remembered as well.
"The Crime Channel" focuses on the many aspects of crime in our society and how the average viewer can better cope with it. Programming is informative,
educational and entertaining, designed to improve relations between the police & community, prevent crime and advocate for victim's rights.Since crime and
all its manifestations are diverse and far
reaching, "The Crime Channel" touches upon topics relevant to the worldwide community at large.
Also, law enforcement officials will develop a closer affinity to the cable system along with city, county and government agencies, due to the nature of
"The Crime Channel's programming. When possible the channel will engage with localized enforcement officials by profiling them in our programming. For example, one of the programs under consideration, "Ask the Chief" will center on local and international authorities and their approach to minimizing crime.
From an advertising point of view, "The Crime Channel" makes available to allaffiliate systems two, two minute breaks per hour. Thus, besides carrying a
popular network, they will have the added benefit of generating spot sales revenues as well. The Crime Channel" has access to a broad array of informative
and entertaining programming, both on a fictional and true to life basis.
We are currently speaking with venture capital firms who have the same vision as we do to assist us in our re-laubch efforts.
Arnie Frank - 3/30/2010 11:46:11 AM EDT
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