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
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The cable industry has got itself
a case of rebrand fever. Numerous media
companies are already relaunching
networks, the M&A market is positioned
to heat up and a handful of
networks’ growth has plateaued.
The evidence is everywhere. Discovery
is about to launch The Hub in
place of Discovery Kids, and is teeing
up its long-awaited OWN launch
on Discovery Health’s channel space.
Fox Reality is becoming Nat Geo Wild. Lifetime
is under new management and has shown signs of
needing an overhaul. MTV Networks has numerous
candidates for course correction. Scripps is
rebranding Fine Living as The Cooking Channel
while also rebooting Travel. NBC Universal is in the throes of
gussying up Oxygen. Turner is about 24 months into the new
TruTV. And Rainbow, which transformed AMC from a classic
film destination to a serious place for series, is looking to put
a new shine on Sundance and IFC.

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

NO MATTER THE REASON, the rebranding process can
prove to be one of the most costly, complicated endeavors in
the business. Executives must strategize to satisfy the viewer,
Madison Avenue and distribution partners in the affiliate
world. And the needs of all three of these cable network “customers”
are changing at unprecedented clips: Viewers’ choices
continue to proliferate and their habits change; marketers want
more targeted, efficient buys; and multichannel video providers
face broadcasters’ push for retrans cash, leading them to
scrutinize their programming budgets like never before.

Cable Rebrand Sidebar

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.

3. Evangelize
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.”

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