TNT did it. Court TV did it. TNN is finally doing it. And Bravo is doing it-whether it means to or not.
Practically every cable channel, it seems, is rebranding. Even The Food Network and The Weather Channel, two stalwarts of service-oriented programming, are rebranding to become lifestyle channels.
Industry experts, however, have varying definitions of what exactly a “rebrand” is.
According to Chris Moseley, executive VP of marketing for the Hallmark Channel, “Rebranding is when you come up with a whole new fundamental platform and core message.”
Ask Art Bell, president and chief operating officer of Court TV, and he’ll tell you, “It’s when you change the promise you made to your viewers.”
Offering yet another definition, Steve Koonin, executive VP and COO of TNT and TBS, said, “It’s when you make changes and sacrifices for your brand.”
All agree, however, that the process can be exceedingly difficult and is fraught with potential public missteps and ratings pitfalls.
“One obvious risk is you might alienate your core viewers,” said program and development consultant Ray Solley of The Solley Group. “The other is that it takes awhile to get that new brand through the collective consciousness of the culture. And there’s always the risk that the rebrand won’t be perceived the way you say it should be perceived.”
Rich Cronin, president and CEO of the Game Show Network, dealt with such risks when he launched a rebrand of GSN two years ago. The trick was to bring in younger demographics while being careful not to lose the older viewers who tuned in to watch classic game shows.
The channel invested tens of millions in younger-skewing original content. But all the while, Mr. Cronin said, network executives have been careful to roll out new material gradually and never told their viewers exactly what they were up to. “If you make a radical change there’s going to be some anger,” he said.
About the same time Mr. Cronin was brought in to revamp GSN, Ms. Moseley was charged with rebranding the Odyssey Network into the Hallmark Channel. But Ms. Moseley took exactly the opposite approach.
The Odyssey Network was a little-known cable net that offered family and religious fare. Recognizing that the Hallmark brand had renowned cachet, Ms. Moseley wanted to distance the new brand as far as possible from its previous identity.
So Ms. Moseley decided to stage a coup-“light-switching” the identity to the Hallmark Channel to make it seem as if the previous channel position was overthrown by a new network rather than simply rebranded.
“It was tricky,” she said. “If you were watching our channel position, there was never any communication on air, print or radio that Channel X was turning into Channel Y.”
The network spent about $13 million in national advertising to back up the new brand and today, Ms. Moseley said, “There really isn’t anybody out there who knows that Hallmark once occupied the Odyssey space.”
Rebrands Gone Adrift
Despite the cost, cable networks and observers maintain that rebrands are worthwhile.
“Everybody wants a hit show, but the branding process is essential to tell advertisers, `Here’s what we’re going after,”’ Mr. Solley said.
Not every campaign takes hold, however. So which networks have done a poor job of rebranding? A couple of cable insiders interviewed for this story mentioned WE, one of the AMC Networks, which recently fired 14 executives amid a marketing accounting scandal.
“I don’t think their name is strong, and [the brand is] all style and not enough substance,” one marketer said.
Countered WE Executive VP of Affiliate Marketing Kim Martin: “Our goal is not to make the other networks happy, but to make our distributors and consumers happy. And the response from them has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Others cited the much-discussed Spike TV.
“[TNN] is saying, `We can’t make these letters stand for anything so we’re going to switch the name,”’ said an executive of a rival network. “They still have `Star Trek,’ they still have `CSI’-they’re not a male network, they’re just named a male network. They didn’t make the commitment because they’re scared to lose their audience.”
Spike TV spokesman Robert Pini laughed at the slam, then said, “It’s obvious who’s scared around here-and they should be.”
Cronin, a former marketer for MTV Networks, agreed Spike TV will eventually be a force in the market.
“They are great branders at that company and they will get it right,” he said. “A men’s network is a big idea.”
Instead, Cronin took UPN to task. “UPN has tried several different approaches with radically different programming. They’ve tried a lot of branding strategies and haven’t hit on one that’s unique,” he said.
Though WE, TNN and UPN may still be struggling to define themselves, none of those networks has ever had overcome a more negative brand challenge than Court TV.
`The O.J. Network’
“Five years ago when you said `Court TV,’ people thought of O.J. Simpson,” said Bob Rose, executive VP of the network’s affiliate relations.
Of course, for a while Brand O.J. was a ratings joyride-at one point pulling in more than a 2.8. Then, after the trials, the network’s numbers plummeted, all the way to a 0.1 share in 1999.
Mr. Bell’s idea was to refocus the network away from cameras in the courtroom to criminal investigations.
Court TV added reruns of “Homicide,” and the original series “Forensic Files.” When “Files” became the network’s most popular program, Court TV rebranded with the tagline “Join the Investigation.”
A common criticism about Court TV’s rebrand is that its name is increasingly inaccurate as the net adds investigative content.
Mr. Bell disagreed and said the network has no plans to change its moniker anytime soon.
“The people who don’t know us are getting a misdirect from our name,” Mr. Bell said. “But as time goes on, there are fewer and fewer people who don’t know what we do.”
Out of the Closet
Court TV’s “Forensic Files” and TLC’s “Trading Spaces” are regularly credited as shows that have single-handedly remade a brand image-with the networks’ wholehearted support.
But what happens when a network doesn’t want to be rebranded by a hit show?
That’s the curious position Bravo President Jeff Gaspin is in right now with the success of the network’s emerging hit “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Mr. Gaspin, who’s charged with refining and focusing (but not “rebranding,” per se) the NBC-owned net, has been trying to halt the encroaching perception among critics and viewers that Bravo has a gay theme.
“We are a broad-based entertainment network,” Mr. Gaspin said. “I think it’s unfair to brand us a gay network just because it so happens that one show, `Queer Eye,’ was launched in a big way.”
Still, tuning in to watch the “Queer Eye” premiere, most viewers likely caught the end of a live Cher concert, perhaps a teaser for next week’s Cirque du Soleil performance, and promos for the upcoming gay dating show “Boy Meets Boy.” It’s easy to see how those viewers might get the impression that Bravo is coming out of the closet.
But Mr. Gaspin insists that time will dispel the gay-theme perception.
“A brand doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “I think the shows will ultimately speak for themselves. Over time the product itself, the programming, will define us.”
Mr. Solley said Bravo’s quandary is a common one at midsize networks.
“There’s always going to be a push and pull between what creates a brand the marketing campaign or the hit show,” he said.
Of course, if `Queer Eye’ steers the network’s image too far from Bravo’s brand, Mr. Gaspin could do what TNT’s Steve Koonin would do: Cancel it.
The Best Brands Endure
Asked which networks have done a great job of rebranding, many insiders point to Comedy Central, MTV, TLC and TNT.
“I think TNT is doing a brilliant job. They’re the gold standard right now,” Ms. Moseley said.
Since its rebrand, TNT has seen an overall household ratings increas
e of 34 percent.
According to Mr. Koonin, taking a network known for a bouillabaisse of entertainment programming and honing its image down to a network that “knows drama” didn’t happen without sacrifice.
“A real rebrand is when you cancel your top-rated show because it doesn’t fit the brand,” Mr. Koonin said, referring to onetime TNT staple “World Championship Wrestling.” “We couldn’t say that we knew drama if we knew wrestling. I’m probably the only network executive in history who has ever done that.”
Mr. Koonin is also charged with rebranding TBS, which he described as “a work in progress,” refusing to give any hints about what direction the campaign might take.
“We’re following a similar process that gave us our success with TNT,” he said. “We’ll be announcing [the new brand] at our upfront next spring.”
A former Coca-Cola executive, Mr. Koonin believes that programs will come and go, but “The best brands endure.” He advises networks caught up in the success of a single program not to think short term.
“Everything you do brands a net, not just one program,” Mr. Koonin said. “If one program is your brand, then you’re in trouble.”
“Because one day,” he said, “you will have to cancel your brand.”