Just Like Fine Wine

When things start going good, hot cable networks have to be ready to seize the momentum and do that much better

The hardest thing about being on top is getting there. The next hardest is staying there. As cable networks attempt to steal more eyeballs from broadcast, the top networks look healthier than they have all year.

Comedy Central, E!, Hallmark Channel, and Discovery all broke ratings records in April; audiences continued to grow for ESPN, ESPN 2, VH1, and USA. TNT continued to be No. 1 among adults 18-49 with 1.1 million viewers.

Comedy Central's Chappelle's Show—the top-rated series among adults 18-49 for six out of the last 10 weeks—is helping the network boost its prime time delivery in the demo by 15% to 561,000, a sign that the network is growing up, media buyers say.

"Comedy Central isn't just South Park
and Saturday Night Live
reruns," according to one media buyer. "The network has broadened its audience and shown unexpected growth for the long-term."

Another success story is Spike TV. The network has witnessed considerable growth since its previous incarnation as TNN.

Forget cartoons starring Pamela Anderson Lee. After just a few short months, the "first TV network for men" will produce a series of documentaries and specials that seek to address "the male identity." And no, it won't be hosted by a busty babe either. Spike TV has tapped Keith Brown, a bona fide journalist, most recently an on-air correspondent for the PBS news and public affairs show Now With Bill Moyers.

"These programs hit on a number of themes that men are concerned about—family duty, body image, job stress as well as dealing with life challenges," says Brown, vice president of news and documentaries.

Among Spike TV's more cerebral offerings are Hardwood Dreams 2, a look at the five players from Los Angeles's Morningside High School basketball team profiled in the 1993 documentary Hardwood Dreams; Fatherhood In America, which explores what it means to be a father; and the six-part The Precinct, following police officers in one of America's most notorious precincts.

"We have a serious side and we want advertisers to know it," a Spike TV spokesman says.

Meanwhile, History Channel is solidifying its dominance in the 25-54 demo and looking to show its fun side a bit more. The network's Executive Vice President of Sales Mel Berning points out that special telecasts are an ingenious way to display History's many facets, especially when it comes to the elusive male target.

The sense that we're getting is that agencies and advertisers really appreciate the delivery of men," Berning says. "There's not a lot of places on TV that can do that. The History Channel has emerged as one that has proven support of male viewers. In the scatter market, we've been able to do a tremendous amount of business, in the financial category, pharmaceuticals and auto categories as well. We are up year-over-year in dollars and cents."

History Channel notched its highest total viewer average ever in April, drawing 1.4 million, up 82% from the previous April (782,000).

"April's success has been fueled by our specials, as well as new and returning series," says History Channel Executive Vice President and General Manager Dan Davids. "When you look at the network now, we broke into the top 10 for adults 18-49 this year and we're looking to keep that momentum going."

The ratings bonanza was due largely to the import of HBO's World War II miniseries Band of Brothers. Berning and Davids insist that the Band of Brothers
is only an entrée to a commitment to original series programming that will further attract advertisers and expand its demographic reach beyond 25-54.

To that end, History Channel recently launched Wild West Tech, about the inventions and innovations that helped open the American West during the 1890s, and is gearing

up for Command Decisions, an interactive, X-Box-like series that examines dramatic turning points in history. Both are aimed at younger viewers.

"Advertisers are looking for outlets that, qualitatively, they're comfortable with," Berning says. "History Channel has proved it's a strong brand."

Women aren't being left out of the equation when it comes to shows seeking the 18-49 demo. TLC and Lifetime know how to attract females, and both are using shows that combine a Martha Stewart aesthetic with a Bob Vila sensibility.

In October, Lifetime will unveil U.K. import How Clean is Your House?—sort of American Idol
with a broom and mop. The show features contestants competing for cleanliness, much as Idol
showcases singing. They're both from the same producer.

"It makes the 'how to' genre more entertaining," says Rick Basso, Lifetime senior vice president of pricing and planning. "Women 18-49 love that. And advertisers especially love that."

Over at Discovery Network's TLC, the new fall show Overhaulin'
is clearly inspired by MTV's Punk'd. On this show, unknowing car-owners have their autos taken away from them, only to have them returned at the end of the show in much better condition.

"We have a couple of different scenarios, one involving fake cops claiming the owner has too many parking tickets," says Rob McGovern, vice president and national sales manager for TLC and BBC America. "It brings a dose of comedy to a form that hasn't seen that before, and it's important to try something new. That's the success of TLC."