Spike TV: Pushing the Limit

Sep 1, 2003  •  Post A Comment

What Maxim magazine, MTV, Howard Stern and Comedy Central’s “The Man Show” have started, Spike TV plans to carry to the next level this week with the launch of “The Joe Schmo Show” and other programming designed to draw in elusive young male viewers.
Pushing aside prohibitions on bad taste, sex, naughty language and general prurience, Spike TV plans to test the limits of what is acceptable on basic advertiser-supported cable TV in a big way. Despite protests from some conservative groups about breaking traditional cable boundaries, the MTV Networks channel, which until two weeks ago was known as “The New TNN,” seeks nothing less than to define a market niche in which programming that appeals to young men, no matter how edgy, provides its own justification.
“We have a phrase here: `This channel is PG-25,”’ said Albie Hecht, Spike’s president, who is a veteran of Nickelodeon and other MTV Networks. “It’s somewhere between PG-13 and R.”
Mr. Hecht said that Spike commissioned a study, soon to be released by MTV, that will show 60 percent of today’s TV viewers have no problem with what an earlier generation called off-color language. Until now, expletives have been heard regularly only on adult-rated shows on premium channels, where viewers must subscribe to bring it into their living rooms.
Spike TV plans to change that. “We use the word `raw’ a lot around here,” said Mr. Hecht. “The 18-34 male is OK with the way life really is. They don’t have a problem with words like bull–t.” These viewers, he added, “are the new normal.”
This kind of programming-a mix of violence, sex and sophomoric stunts-is bursting out all over basic cable, which is not regulated by the Federal Trade Commission and is therefore, theoretically, reined in only by concerns of cable operators and advertisers. Among the more popular shows on the lineup across the box now are Spike’s WWE wrestling, its “Slamball” extreme sports show and its “Ren & Stimpy’s Adult Party,” as well as FX’s “Nip/Tuck,” a sexy show about plastic surgery, the violent FX show “The Shield,” Howard Stern on E! and Bravo’s edgy hit “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Most of these are not shows that would even have run 10 years ago, much less earned ratings success.
Signature Shows
Spike TV also has a good deal of off-network fare that consistently attracts an audience. However, running former network hits does not create a strong identity for the channel. That can only be done with signature original programming.
Advertisers who have prime-time (defined as 7 p.m. to midnight) run-of-schedule commitments to Spike TV include Taco Bell, General Motors, Old Spice, Heineken, Radio Shack and Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Mr. Hecht said, adding that all advertisers are shown programming ahead of time so there are no surprises. “Taco Bell, for example, has a very cool, upscale image” that fits this new direction, Mr. Hecht said.
He also emphasized that Spike has a well-rounded schedule, with reruns of mainstream shows such as “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “CSI,” “Baywatch” and others that appeal to a full range of advertisers.
Taco Bell, an Irvine, Calif.-based division of Yum! Brands Inc., announced a $15 million commitment to MTV Networks in June 2002, making the channel the exclusive QSR (quick service restaurant) sponsor on the 2003 MTV Music Video Awards and the 2003 MTV Movie Awards, and also sponsoring the sometimes controversial series “The Osbournes” during the first quarter of this year. Taco Bell spokesperson Laurie Schalow acknowledged that the company looks for cutting-edge programming when it buys TV, partly to fit its current commercial tag line, “Think Outside the Bun.”
“Reality TV has changed the game,” Ms. Schalow said. “We need to place our advertising where the eyeballs are watching.”
Taco Bell considered placing its ads on Spike’s “Stripperella” but ultimately decided it “wasn’t appropriate” and didn’t meet the brand’s guidelines. But the brand does work with many other Spike TV shows.
“Stripperella,” produced by Stan Lee of “Spider Man” fame, with the sexy voice of Pamela Anderson, has aired since June. “Exotic dancer by night, a sexy superhero by … later night,” a promo reads. The show was among the Top 30 cable programs shortly after its debut. Spike also is delving into the hip-hop lifestyle with a show called “Flex,” in which rap star Funkmaster Flex drives around with celebrities, including Lil’ Kim and Queen Latifah, in a variety of upscale automobiles. The upstart network will inaugurate its own awards show Dec. 4, with its new “Spike Video Games Awards.”
So far Viacom and MTV Networks seem to have been right in changing the name and mandate of the channel. Spike TV had what Hecht characterizes as the channel’s best-ever upfront advertising commitment. It’s averaging a reasonable .5 rating among men 18 to 49, its key demo, and it has shed its concentration of viewers in the Southeast for a more national orientation.
Household income of the average viewer has shot up from $25,000 for The Nashville Network to $45,000 today, and the mean age of the channel’s viewers has dropped from 57 two years ago to 37 today. That is somewhat astonishing given how hard it has been for more established networks like Spike’s corporate sibling CBS to lower the age of their viewers.
Cablers Take Note
All this newfound boldness and apparent success has not escaped the attention of advertisers and cable operators. “We typically look at cable programming from an agnostic direction,” noted Bobby Amirshahi, a spokesperson for Cox Cable. “As long as a network lives up to its contract that we signed with them, that’s fine. But clearly a lot has changed since we signed a contract with TNN.” Mr. Amirshahi wouldn’t say whether customers have complained about Spike, but he noted Cox will act if a certain number of customers complain about any channel, “and we would do the same with any new programming on Spike TV.”
Jon Mandel, co-CEO of giant media buying agency Mediacom, referred to a trend in the print industry in which traditional men’s magazines such as GQ and Esquire have been supplanted by more raunchy titles like Maxim and FHM, mostly British in origin and known as “lads” magazines. The new cable shows, including Spike’s, look familiar, he said. “It’s the lad books, but a sophomoric version,” Mr. Mandel said. Despite some predictions that the soft-core magazines eventually would lose ground, both Maxim and rival FHM are up about 30 percent in ad pages and revenue this year (as of July issues), according to Publishers Information Bureau.
Even more telling, Maxim’s ad revenue of more than $100 million through July was almost twice that of more sedate competitor GQ from Conde Nast, with about $55 million. (A desire to keep up with Maxim has fueled a change of editors at both GQ and Rolling Stone in the past year.)
Maxim itself now has a series of TV specials, including a show focusing on sexy actresses, “The Hot 100,” that aired on NBC in June, and a football-oriented special on ESPN. A plan for a Maxim TV network or regular series fizzled, spokesperson Drew Kerr said.
The trend toward more explicit programming has been condemned by Christian groups, among others. L. Brent Bozell of the Virginia-based Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group, wrote in an August column about “a show like FX’s new `black comedy’ about plastic surgeons, titled `Nip/Tuck.’ From the utter depravity of its sensationalism, it should be better known as `Up/Chuck,”’ Mr. Bozell quipped.
Bonnie Barest, executive VP and managing director at Zenith Optimedia, noted that a recent media placement on Fox’s “Paradise Hotel” had brought pressure letters into Optimedia, including an e-mail letter campaign by OneMillionDads.com, an offshoot of the conservative American Family Association. “That such a show airs on television is sad commentary on the state of morals and culture in America. It is not family friendly and we will do all in our power to encourage other Americans of like mind
to refuse to purchase the products of those who promote this show. We believe there are millions of us,” wrote Larry and Rose Kehoe of Zionsville, Ind., supporters of the campaign.
Buddy Smith, a spokesperson for the American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss., said the OneMillionDads campaign has focused primarily on broadcast TV so far, but is looking at some cable shows.
Nonetheless, there is evidence that pressure tactics like this don’t work. According to OneMillionDads.com’s own Web site, the group flooded Marriott Hotels with “thousands of e-mails” complaining about adult films being available in Marriott rooms, so much that on Aug. 15, Marriott spokesman Tom Cooper demanded the group desist or the company would take legal action.
Michael Drexler, the CEO of Zenith Optimedia, noted that the conservative pressure groups have lost influence. “Their mission is to stir the pot, but clearly they are a minority,” he said. “Advertisers are really coming around to becoming a lot more liberal.”
Optimedia has placed some clients on “The Man Show.” “There are some who are willing to consider it, and some that aren’t,” Ms. Barest said. The agency would also consider “The Joe Schmo Show,” she added. “It is possible we would buy the show for a young-oriented advertiser, but not in [the more controversial] episodes,” Ms. Barest said. Most of our guidelines steer clear of controversial-type programs. It’s harder for the younger male demo, but all in all, we strive for tasteful programs.”
Looser Standards
Advertisers have had some time to get used to looser standards on cable. MTV Networks also owns Comedy Central, which has an even larger concentration of male viewers (70/30) than Spike (65/35). Comedy Central executives tend to bristle, despite the MTV Networks family relationship, when Spike executives crow about their new direction.
Spokesperson Tony Fox is quick to point out that Comedy Central was already moving in some of the same directions as Spike, with “The Man Show,” “South Park” and programs such as “Insomniac,” with Dave Attell, which has a heavy focus on strippers and other forms of “night life.”
Mr. Fox said Comedy Central has been “wrestling” with the dichotomy between the ratings success of such fare and the squeamishness of some advertisers “for years.”
“There are specific kinds of advertisers who want to be on this kind of programming, including movie companies, video game companies. There are certainly plenty of clients,” Mr. Fox concluded, “who are interested in reaching young men.”