Net Enlists Stars to Refresh Brand

Apr 3, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Travel Channel is going to Hollywood.

The Discovery Networks-owned network has lined up a trio of celebrity-fronted new series as part of a push to transform its image into a more personality-driven brand.

The channel has tapped Drew Carey, Marisa Tomei and Joan Cusack to pursue their passion projects.

Patrick Younge, executive VP and general manager of Travel Channel, said he plans to announce the new series, along with a handful of other programming announcements and a new look for the network, during Travel’s upfront presentation in New York this week.

“We knew we had to reinvent this network around our travel core,” Mr. Younge said. “Some viewers have given up on us. So we’re using people that viewers are familiar with, people who have a passion they want to fulfill, to bring viewers back to the network.”

The network has also picked up the rights to the No. 1 New York Times bestseller “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.”

The changes have been planned for more than year, but don’t call it a “rebranding.”

“We’re not thumping our chest saying that we have a new brand,” Mr. Younge said. “This is more of a brand evolution.”

The new series orders come after the recent announcement of another celebrity-related Travel project, “Jeremy Piven’s Journey of a Lifetime,” featuring the actor traveling to India. “Celebrities have often called and said, ‘We want to go somewhere, why don’t you film it?'” Mr. Younge said. “And we’ve always turned that down.”

The difference, Mr. Younge said, is that the channel is trying to become more personality-driven and showcase people chasing their passions.

Three P’s

Cable programming consultant Ray Solley said the celebrity-driven shows offer “a third P” aside from “personality” and “passion.”

“There’s a third P: promotion,” Mr. Solley said. “It’s easier to promote a show with a log line like ‘Marisa Tomei goes to flea markets.’ It’s easier to explain. You put that on the side of a billboard, it takes a tried-and-true concept and turns it into a high concept.”

Another high-concept offering, but without a celebrity attached (at least, not yet), is “1,000 Places to See Before You Die,” based on the bestselling book by Patricia Schultz. The series, with an as-yet-undetermined episode count, will be shot in high definition to also run on Discovery HD Theater.

Travel Channel was hit hard by 9/11, when a lack of American interest in traveling abroad gutted viewership for tentpole shows such as “Lonely Planet.” “The planet didn’t seem so lonely anymore,” Mr. Younge said.

The channel shifted to U.S.-based travelogues on locations such as Las Vegas, Hawaii and Florida-as well as taking an off-brand chance on “World Poker Tour,” which became the network’s top-rated show for 2003. But along the way, the channel became less exotic.

By 2005 Travel had only two ongoing series-“Made in America” and “World Poker Tour”-along with plenty of travelogue and list-oriented content. Then Mr. Younge took the reins last March.

He started his career at the BBC in 1991 as an on-air reporter and worked his way up through the production and executive ranks. When he joined Travel, his course was already set, with Discovery having completed plenty of research on how to improve the network.

“This redesign was done when I arrived. My job has been to execute it,” he said.

One of the first indications of the personality and passion shift was picking up “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” which Mr. Younge has renewed for a third season.

Another new tactic is to find low-budget content, such as the recently debuted “5 Takes,” where young travelers post video blogs and interact with online fans.

Mr. Younge said he had documentarians shoot similarly inexpensive content (costing about $50,000 per hour of content) of last week’s total solar eclipse and of this year’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans for upcoming projects.

“We got the high-end stuff and low-end stuff,” Mr. Younge said. “What’s getting squeezed out is the middle: the middling stuff with middle ambition, middle quality.”

Another type of Travel Channel show that’s falling from company grace is off-brand content that uses travel “as a fig leaf rather than a bulls-eye.” Though Mr. Younge declined to site any specific examples, he said a couple shows are facing the ax.

One off-brand show not in any danger is “World Poker Tour,” which Mr. Younge said has just been renewed for a fifth season.

For the first quarter, Travel is up 3 percent among total viewers in prime time for the quarter and up 8 percent among viewers 18 to 49, according to Nielsen Media Research.

New Celeb Shows From Travel Channel

  • “Marisa Tomei’s Hidden Markets”: The Academy Award-winning actress searches for unique items in flea markets around the world. Thirteen one-hour episodes ordered from executive producer R.J. Cutler (FX’s “Black. White.”).

  • “Joan Cusack’s Local Flavor”: The “School of Rock” and “High Fidelity” actress travels the world, talking with locals and visiting their homes to experience their food and lifestyles. Six hour-long episodes from Goodnight Productions.

  • “Drew Carey’s World Cup”: The former sitcom star, who has sold soccer game photographs to news organizations under a pseudonym for years, goes to the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. Five hour-long episodes produced by TWI.