Building Character

May 9, 2005  •  Post A Comment

After a year of building anticipation for a mysterious summer branding initiative, USA Network is set to announce its new tagline: “Characters Welcome.”

Billed as the channel’s first branding effort since it launched in 1980, the campaign will attempt to unify USA’s diverse programming components by spotlighting the network’s most compelling performers.

Sources said the tagline will be

announced in June, followed by a national ad campaign that will cost about $8 million. USA Network declined to comment.

The campaign will take advantage of USA’s recent acquisition of World Wrestling Entertainment’s “Monday Night Raw.” Characters from USA series, such as Tony Shalhoub’s Adrian Monk and Ving Rhames’ Lt. Kojak, will be featured along with popular WWE performers to promote USA’s original programming and build anticipation for the October debut of “Raw.”

Since NBC’s merger with Vivendi Universal Entertainment a year ago, putting a brand on USA has been a high priority for Jeff Gaspin, NBC’s president of cable entertainment and cross-platform strategy, and USA-Sci Fi President Bonnie Hammer.

The network is the last major cable channel to present itself as purely general interest. In recent years competitors TNT (“We know drama”), TBS (“very funny”) and the former TNN (now Spike TV, “The network for men”) have all been firmly branded.

NBCU executives have repeatedly stated they want to avoid putting USA into a niche but still hope to give the network some identifiable personality.

“It’s sort of scary to rebrand a network that’s never really had a brand,” Ms. Hammer told TelevisionWeek in January. “We’re not taking a left turn. We’re not changing the network. We’re really successful, so it’s enhancing what we have, as opposed to reinventing what we have.”

Previous USA taglines have included such general platitudes as “Cure for the common show” and “The remote stops here.”

After mulling over the new tagline, cable programming consultant Ray Solley said it could be a good move.

“It’s smart to base your brand around characters and stories,” he said. “That’s a big idea and easy to get ahold of, and you can promote it with pictures of people. If it’s ‘Characters Welcome,’ the good news is they can deliver on that. How the campaign gets executed will make all the difference.”

A programming executive at another major cable network, however, was unimpressed.

“It’s like some test question: ‘What does wrestling, “Monk,” “The Dead Zone,” “The 4400” and “Nashville Star” all have in common?'” he asked. “The answer is nothing. USA’s not drama, not comedy, not action, not male, not female. A tagline is not a brand. The ad community is not looking for networks with great ad campaigns; they’re looking for environments with strong brands.”

When “Raw” was on USA from 1993 to 2000, the network was often No. 1 on the prime-time basic cable Nielsens. Today the channel consistently ranks in the top three, with its top-rated series “Monk,” second-run theatrical movies and nightly airings of “Law & Order: SVU” -whose exclusive off-network rights USA acquired in 2001.

Earlier this month USA announced a three-year deal to bring “Raw” back to the network, taking over the franchise from Spike TV. Though no longer the phenomenon it was in the 1990s, wrestling has remained a top 10 staple in recent years. USA reportedly pays $30 million annually for the franchise, about the same as Spike TV, though NBCU has gained control of the show’s advertising.

USA sees the return of wrestling as a vehicle for pushing USA back to the top of the cable Nielsens and lowering the channel’s median age, which is 48. During the first quarter USA was second only to TNT among total viewers but ranked fourth among adults 18 to 49.