Marking the first new year since the merger of NBC and Vivendi Universal Entertainment, NBCU is seeking ways to take its networks to greater heights. The first goal on the list: rebranding campaigns for USA Network and Bravo. Jeff Gaspin, president of cable entertainment and cross-platform strategy for NBC Universal, said the rebrandings are not designed to provide quick ratings increases, but to strengthen the channels for the years to come.
“The reason for a brand is much more important for the long term,” Mr. Gaspin said. “As the marketplace gets more crowded, the best and strongest brands will stand out. Five years from now, the brands that are the strongest are the ones that are going to survive.”
Mr. Gaspin, along with Bonnie Hammer, president of USA Network and Sci Fi Channel, and Lauren Zalaznick, president of Bravo and Trio, laid out their collective plans for the cable empire, which merged NBC’s Bravo with Universal’s USA, Sci Fi and Trio last year. Since the merger, the channels have cross-aired select programs, cross-promoted brands and tried to keep from stepping on each other’s toes during scheduling.
Though the networks enjoyed a successful year in 2004 (with the exception of Trio, which is in developmental limbo while NBC contemplates its fate), the biggest ratings waves were made by USA. Its miniseries/back-door pilot “The 4400” was the highest-rated basic cable debut of the year, attracting an average of 5.9 million viewers. “The 4400” was a rising tide that floated all of USA’s series boats last summer and gave NBC something akin to a sixth broadcast network. USA’s dual revenue stream, NBC sources said, is arguably more profitable than the Peacock Network itself.
In 2005 USA, which has long taken a broadcast-style general-interest approach to crafting its image, will have its first-ever branding campaign. Though executives are coy about specifics, a brand has been chosen and the network will switch over in July. Ms. Hammer admitted the prospect of branding a network amid a winning streak is unnerving.
“It’s sort of scary to rebrand a network that’s never really had a brand,” Ms. Hammer said. “Right now we’re on a great roll, but the network doesn’t have a personality. We’ve never had a single [brand] other than a hit show or a hit movie. Though I can’t give it away, we’re not going to figure out a niche. We’re not going to say we are comedy, we are drama, we are for men. If successful, it will be perfect for the channel.”
For Bravo’s rebranding, the goal is a little different. Bravo burst from the gate after NBC took over with the twin pop hits “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and “Celebrity Poker Showdown.” Following up on those successes and maintaining the initial ratings jump of the brightly burning “Queer Eye” has been more difficult. Add persistent questions about what exactly Bravo’s brand is nowadays, and an image polish is in order.
Starting in January with the launch of “Queer Eye for the Straight Girl,” Bravo will feature a new logo and tagline-“Bravo: Watch What Happens”-supported by a marketing campaign. The slogan reflects Bravo’s efforts to have hits like “Queer Eye” and “Celebrity Poker” that tap into the cultural zeitgeist.
“Bravo’s success has come from capitalizing on mass trends that have not been popularized for television,” Ms. Zalaznick said.
Meanwhile, Sci Fi Channel is in the unique position of having exactly the opposite branding problem as USA Network and Bravo. While USA and Bravo are too fuzzy, Sci Fi is a bit too narrow. The channel launched two successful new series this year-“Stargate: Atlantis” and “Ghost Hunters”-and two miniseries, “Earthsea” and “Battlestar Galactica.” “Ghost Hunters,” a paranormal reality show, and “Earthsea,” a fantasy epic, were aimed at helping expand the network’s brand beyond hardcore science-fiction fans, a trend that will continue next year.
“Sci Fi is a model channel. They’ve doubled their audience in five years and there’s no competition in their category,” Mr. Gaspin said. “We know there’s a broad audience for the sci-fi genre. [But] their brand is so clear they have to fight to get new people in the door.”
The relationship between Ms. Hammer and NBC got off to an awkward start when news broke of a Sci Fi Channel hoax promoting “The Village,” in which the channel misled reporters in an attempt to fake a scandal involving director M. Night Shyamalan. News of the hoax broke in July-one month after the merger in which NBC expanded Ms. Hammer’s duties to include USA Network and days before her first Television Critics Association appearance.
Looking back, Ms. Hammer said, “The timing was bizarre and brutal.”
“[The hoax was] a guerrilla marketing stunt, which Sci Fi grew up on since we never had much marketing money,” she said. “Had it happened earlier, nobody else would have been involved or hurt by it. But when you get connected to an organization that has a news division or a whole entertainment division that wasn’t involved, everybody reacted like, `What is this and who is she?”‘
Ms. Hammer said her willingness to take responsibility for the hoax helped the situation settle quickly.
As for future network launches, NBC Universal has been rumored to be considering several possible brands-including a horror channel to pair with Sci Fi. Though Mr. Gaspin couldn’t confirm that the company will target any specific niche, he did say NBC Universal will likely launch new channels-but only as video-on-demand channels, not as stand-alone cable networks. Launching new digital networks, he said, is no longer economically feasible.
“[The new channels are] going to be VOD and SVOD,” Mr. Gaspin said. “There’s plenty of niches left, but there’s no financial model for full channels. The cable operators want SVOD, VOD and HD; they want new revenue streams. Adding another digital channel isn’t going to add another subscriber.”