MTV Networks Ponders Spike Fix

A network executive with a 57% ratings surge should be gloating, right? But not Spike TV chief Albie Hecht; he's in danger of losing his job.

MTV Networks Chairman Judy McGrath is close to moving Hecht out as president of the self-proclaimed “first network for men,” which is struggling to pull a strong enough male demo. Comedy Central President Doug Herzog likely will be given more say over the network's programming and marketing. It's not clear, however, if Spike would move out of its current home, the Nickelodeon group, and into Herzog's Comedy camp.

Another counterintuitive element in the story: Herzog might be taking a bigger hand in Spike, but that doesn't signal a reduction of Nickelodeon Group chief Herb Scannell's power. Scannell's turf is only getting bigger. MTVN insiders say Scannell will be assuming a greater corporate role, taking over some of the operations and finance duties of ex-MTVN President Mark Rosenthal, who left last year.

What's the problem with Spike? The network's growth is coming from the wrong kind of viewers: women. Re-launching Spike in 2003, Hecht's mission was to draw younger male viewers. It worked, to a point. That first year, women accounted for just 32% of the network's prime time viewers, making Spike the most male-skewing network in television. But nightly runs of CSI starting last year have pushed the female audience to 42%.

That would be fine if Spike were also drawing more of its targeted demo. But Spike's ratings among men 18-34 increased a mere 4% in the fourth quarter of 2004. (It's doing better among 18-49s, up 15%.)

The bigger problem may be that Spike hasn't developed other programming that works particularly well. The network's one homegrown hit, reality show Joe Schmo, tanked in its second season. The best-performing new show is The Ultimate Fighter, a bar brawl in a boxing ring—a guaranteed turnoff to many advertisers.

Branding and “super- serving” specific demos is a religion at MTVN, but Spike has been a chronic problem. It came to Viacom as TNN: The Nashville Network when Viacom took over CBS in 2000. It was subsequently rebranded as The New TNN, and then The National Network. Turning it into Spike initially seemed like a marketing masterstroke, since its audience was already heavily male. But now Spike seems stalled.

“Albie's done a fantastic job in advancing Spike this year,” says an MTVN spokeswoman. But she won't comment “on rumors that are spread by unnamed sources.”

Hecht's ousting from the network wouldn't necessarily mean an exit from the company. He likely would get to stay on as a production executive. After all, Diane Rubino, his predecessor at Spike (then The National Network), is still at MTV Networks, working on program acquisitions. One of her last moves before getting pushed out of Spike: buying CSI.

'On the Media' On the Move?

On the Media is a staple of National Public Radio, but PBS—anxious for content to fill its digital sub-channels—would like to see the show jump into another medium as well. On public television, the media-news and analysis show could reach an even wider audience of journalism junkies.

Discussions are still “really early,” says Dean Cappello, executive producer of the show, which is produced by WNYCNew York. But according to one source, PBS is already in discussions about funding with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Florida.

Producing a one-hour TV pilot would cost $500,000. Cappello finds the number daunting (“That's half a year's budget for the radio program”), but the goal is to get a pilot on-air in about six months, then raise money to launch the show within a year to 18 months.

Yet to be determined: whether the TV version of On the Media would run exclusively on a public- affairs digital channel PBS is tentatively calling Public Square, or whether it would also air on the main PBS network.

Also unresolved: the roles of radio hosts Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone. “Until we go through the pilot process,” Cappello says, “we're not really sure how what they do on the radio show will translate to television and what kind of camera presence we need.”