With Ink, Spike Hopes to Master Reality, Broaden AudienceNew series another entry in cable’s growing unscripted copycat trend 1/09/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern
On Jan. 17, Spike TV will launch a
new tattoo competition reality series
and with its premiere, the network
begins to push the new slogan, “Get
Real,” that it soft-launched last fall.
The series—Ink Master—along with five
other unscripted programs slated to debut
by the summer, are part of a new commitment
by Spike to a yearlong reality programming
strategy that is meant to reposition the
traditionally younger-skewing network for a
broader audience of men.
It is a tactic that helped propel History to
its current standing as a top-five network and
has led to the success of several Discoveryowned
networks and put others like truTV
on the map. And it is also part and parcel
of an extraordinary homogenization among
entries in cable’s reality TV fare.
Spike’s Ink Master follows the path tread by other
tattoo-themed reality shows such as A&E’s previous
Inked and TLC’s NY Ink; what differentiates this entry
is the addition, for the first time, of a competition aspect.
Big Easy Justice, premiering on the net in April,
also explores familiar reality TV territory as it follows
bounty hunter Tat-2 in New Orleans.
All of which begs a nagging question: With so many
cable networks now chasing fans drawn to programming
about pawn shops, storage unit auctions and repossession
agents, among other pursuits, can viewers
even recognize which genre show is on which network?
“I think increasingly less and less,” says Brad
Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. “The
lines have been blurred. Something works on one network
and they are very quick to jump on that success
with kind of like a clone, and I don’t think that that
“To viewers, I don’t think that’s as critical as saying
‘Wow, I really like this show, I’m going to watch it,’”
Adgate adds. “What cable network they’re watching it
on really doesn’t fit in, it’s not as prevalent as the show.”
Programmers no doubt care deeply whether viewers
know what network they are watching their shows
on, but even they have noticed the brand recognition
confusion among viewers.
“What I really love is the people who love shows that
are on other networks and they think
it’s on Animal Planet,” says Marjorie
Kaplan, president of Animal Planet and
Science networks, pointing to the History
series Swamp People as a competing
series that she thinks could be on
The copycat strategy is certainly not
new to unscripted or scripted television. As one network
president who requested anonymity put it: “There
is a long and honorable history in the entertainment
world of following the herd.” But the challenge for networks
hoping to occupy a crowded space becomes not
how to copy a successful show, but how to do it better.
“You always have to be first in the originality of the
concept. But to say that you’re going to spawn a whole
new genre…you aspire to do that, but it’s also about
what’s your spin,” says Sharon Levy, Spike TV executive
VP, original series and animation.
In the case of the bounty-hunter series Big Easy
Justice, Levy says series star Eugene “Tat-2” Thacker
“popped off the screen” in his sizzle reel.
“That’s one of those moments where you go, ‘You
know what, there have been bounty hunter shows, but
he is really unique,’” Levy says. “That element makes
the show unique.”
Kaplan says the same is true looking at the success
of Swamp People on History as an example
of the opportunity Animal Planet has to expand
“I think our job is to look at something
like that show and say not how do we do
that show, but how do we do a show that is
more right for our audience, more distinctive,”
And while programmers’ first priority is
to attract viewers to their shows, creating
a distinct brand and voice so that viewers
stick around from show to show is key to
creating a hit network, not just a hit series.
“It is repetition that builds a brand,” says Marc Juris,
executive VP and COO of truTV. “Watching one show
and liking one show but then going away doesn’t really
help you in the long run.”
For Spike and all the other networks chasing the
reality TV-loving male viewer, the challenge for longterm
success becomes how to get viewers dedicated to
the way you tell stories, so that they build a loyalty to
your network that lasts past programming fads.
“At a certain point the strategy is going to die, it’s going
to stop working,” says the network president. “The
combination of how do you not be too dependent on
it and make sure that you’re always pushing at it is, I
think, a huge challenge in the reality genre that’s maybe
even in some ways bigger than in the scripted world.”