Spike Cooks Up Post-‘Raw’ Plans

Dec 12, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Ratings for Spike TV are up every day of the week-except Monday.

But those Mondays, the former home of World Wrestling Entertainment’s “Monday Night Raw,” have become a drag on the network ticket. The Viacom-owned channel is down 16 percent in the fourth quarter to date among total viewers in prime time compared with the same period last year, according to Nielsen Media research.

Experts attribute that double-digit drop to the loss of WWE, which left Spike in September. On the other hand, WWE’s new home, USA Network, is enjoying a 22 percent boost.

“A 16 percent drop is not good, obviously, and the drop seems to be more male than female, which is what you’d expect,” said Lifetime head of research Tim Brooks.

The loss of wrestling was a calculated risk by Spike President Doug Herzog, who decided in March not to renew the franchise. Mr. Herzog planned to offset the anticipated lower ratings with the hardcore boxing series “Ultimate Fighter,” which debuted in January, and recently announced reality and drama development slates.

Viacom also chipped in by boosting Spike’s programming budget, which, combined with the inherent savings from not paying for the WWE franchise, gave Mr. Herzog considerable dealmaking heft this year. (WWE cost Spike about $40 million per year, according to industry estimates.) And the network’s development team was shifted from the East Coast to the West Coast.

“Nobody around here likes the ratings on Monday nights, but it was not unanticipated that they would be tough numbers to replace,” Spike TV Executive VP and General Manager Kevin Kay said. “But we’ve made up a lot of ground. … It feels like a short-term blip.”

Last January, then Comedy Central President Mr. Herzog added oversight of Spike to his purview, replacing former head of Spike Albie Hecht. At that time, Mr. Herzog announced he would develop bigger, better programs, with fewer series launches. The resulting slates, announced within the past month, include at least nine dramas and seven reality series. The concepts are diverse, yet most are so firmly masculine their log lines practically grunt and sweat.

Dramas include the zombie thriller “Amped,” from two former “X-Files” producers; and a detective series, “The Big Empty,” from the producers of “Rescue Me.” The reality efforts include formats about heavy machinery, car chases, tow truck drivers, race cars and a late-night effort about “unleashing your inner caveman.”

The consistency in tone among the new product bodes well for Spike, said Shari Anne Brill, VP and director of programming for Carat North America.

“Anything that comes into the Viacom fold has been really good at brand building,” Ms. Brill said. “Seems like with these shows, it’s an awful lot of reality, but they’re definitely reaching out to males.”

In 2006, Spike plans to launch two dramas and four reality shows. First up is the previously announced gaming series “King of Vegas,” followed by the fantasy athletic competition “Pros vs. Joes,” with the remainder of new shows drawing from the slates. The most high-profile programming effort, a telepic sequel to the “Blade” franchise, is close to receiving a full series order, sources said.

The slate demonstrates an adult male focus that mostly eschews the basic cable trend-chasing the net has indulged in since its 2003 rebranding from TNN. Spike has shifted programming gears from adult animation (similar to Adult Swim) to video game shows (like TechTV and G4), to repurposed broadcast procedurals (like USA and TNT) to a glut of auto series (in the wake of “Monster Garage” and “American Chopper”-though Spike had lower-profile auto series that pre-dated both of them).

Until “Ultimate Fighter,” the network’s most consistent ratings driver, was the one series that was the most original-the dubbed Japanese game show “Most Extreme Elimination Challenge.”

“In the first two years we really did try a lot of stuff,” Mr. Kay said. “One of the things that really worked was action. Even ‘MXC.’ It’s funny, but it’s action funny. Because we tried a lot of stuff, we have clearer vision now and we’re moving everything in the direction of action.”

Another challenge is managing the network’s skew. Averaging 55 percent male viewers, the network for men is actually only 10 percent more male than competitors such as TNT or USA, thanks to the female-skewing ratings of acquired powerhouse “CSI”

Next year will see the addition of “CSI: NY,” which has a slightly more male audience than the flagship series but could further erode the network’s tenuous male majority.

“We want to be a little bit more male, and the stuff in the development announcements will help us get there,” Mr. Kay said. “We still have ‘CSI,’ God bless it. It’s more male on us than on CBS, but it brings the skew down.”

Kagan has confidence in the network, estimating Spike will enjoy healthy subscriber and ad revenue growth, with subscribers increasing from 91 million this year to 94 million in 2006, and net ad revenue per subscriber rising from $2.70 to $3.02, staying above industry average.

Said Mr. Kay: “No cable network has come this far this fast.”