Nashville no moreMTV moves to make TNN its general-entertainment empire 9/24/2000 08:00:00 PM Eastern
Goodbye, John Boy. In its first direct attack on general-entertainment cable nets like TNT and USA Network, Viacom is squeezing the last bits of country out of TNN, once known as The Nashville Network.
The channel will be recast as TNN, The National Network. Country-and-western-flavored shows like The Waltons and The Real McCoys will be phased out in favor of hipper, general-entertainment pop-culture fare. The transition begins tonight with the World Wrestling Federation's Raw Is War, which Viacom wrested from USA in a contentious bidding battle.
"What we think is valuable and what we hope to cash in on is what the old TNN had: real, authentic people. The goal, ultimately, is to reflect the diversity of the American people," said Herb Scannell, president of MTV Networks' Nickelodeon, TV Land and now TNN, which MTVN inherited in Viacom's CBS acquisition.
The made-over Nashville net will be MTVN's first entry into general entertainment, the most expensive and competitive field in cable. Networks like TBS, TNT and USA spend $300 million to $600 million a year on programming to dominate in general entertainment, according to estimates by Paul Kagan Associates. TNN has been spending just $90 million a year for programming.
MTVN Chairman Tom Freston's immediate plan is to load up on older theatrical movies to generate some reliable ratings. Longer-term tactics include buying off-network broadcast series, possibly sharing split runs of new series with sister broadcast network CBS, and looking to share sporting events like pro golf or NCAA finals with CBS.
The challenge in pulling a Pygmalion with TNN is to transform the network without alienating the current audience. FOX Family Channel couldn't do it: After an overhaul from a soft, stale schedule to Fox's version of family programming, half the audience left. They were mostly the 50-plus viewers that are unattractive to advertisers, but FOX Family's younger viewers are still far too sparse.
"Fox Family is exactly what we don't want to do," Freston said.
Quick, dramatic changes also risk irritating cable operators, which could use the switch to resist TNN. That could be why Scannell is insisting that the TNN transition is an "evolution," not a repositioning. "Our intent is to take the programming to a new level. In terms of the flavor that has always been there, we'll remain consistent with what operators expect." TBS, USA and TNT are among the six most widely distributed cable networks, and all are consistently among the top five in ratings. As The Nashville Network, TNN is the 10th-largest in size but hovers around 18th to 20th in the ratings. Its cash margin beats the top dogs, but, at the end of the day, TBS, TNT and USA bring in about twice the money that TNN generates.
In its Nashville incarnation, TNN offers a schedule full of cowpokes, good ole boys and sassy waitresses- Dallas, Dukes of Hazzard, Waltons, McCoys, Alice-plus a slew of fishing, hunting and car shows that dominate weekends. The new TNN will pull out all the synergy stops to get movies from Viacom's Paramount Studios and shared windows on CBS shows and sports coverage. Diane Robina, a Nickelodeon veteran and new general manager of TNN, will start the overhaul in prime time, building Monday nights around WWF programming and shopping for movies, then dramas, sports and sitcoms to fill the remaining weeknights.
Scannell and Robina expect to unveil new programs over the next two weeks and decide what gets booted from the current lineup.
Besides the off-network repeats, TNN has a smattering of originals like 18 Wheels of Justice, about a special agent evading a vituperative crime boss in a really big truck. Other TNN fare includes Rollerjam, Dead Man's Gun and Grand Ole Opry shows.
"We'll look at what performs on the schedule" before making cuts, Scannell said.
For years, the major performer on TNN has been NASCAR racing, which cost the network about $30 million this year. That expense (or, rather, $25 million of it) will shift to the WWF when NASCAR leaves the network at the end of the year. Even though NASCAR races frequently beat the WWF in ratings, wrestling is the better deal because it churns out consistent, weekly No. 1 performances.
Wrestling alone could conceivably bump TNN up into the top 10 networks in ratings, but that doesn't mean it's a magic bullet: For all its 17 years on USA Network, programmers there never did find a way to snag wrestling fans before and after the winds of War.The leadership of the new TNN will be based in New York with Viacom's MTV Networks, and so it sheds its original president and founder along with its old identity. David Hall, who, as a high-school student, swept the floors at the company that spawned TNN, resigned to make way for the new regime. Freston offered him the job, he said, adding that no amount of money could get him to leave Nashville and live in New York.
He decided against renewing his contract, which ended this month. As for going out and starting another Nashville network, Hall said, no way: TNN was his baby.
"I did not sign a non-compete, but I'd never go out and hurt one of my kids," he said. His immediate next move involved a fishing boat.