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Reinvention Of a Channel

12/05/2004 7:00 PM Eastern

Driving into the garage at 2150 Colorado Avenue, the Santa Monica headquarters for GSN, something is noticeably askew about the signage at the front of the building. After a nearly yearlong, multimillion dollar marketing and promotional effort to rebrand the network and change its name, passersby still see the moniker “Game Show Network.”

“When the building changes some other things, then we'll get a chance to change that,” says GSN president and CEO Rich Cronin during lunch at a nearby restaurant. “They won't change it unless you pay them way too much money. So we're waiting for the next round of changes.”

While Cronin awaits the changes on the outside, he's already spearheading the network's transformation within. Though GSN celebrates its 10-year anniversary this month, many insiders believe the birth of the network really began in May 2001, when Cronin took the top position.

FORMIDABLE OWNERS

At the time, it seemed clear that a channel with two formidable owners known for their programming acumen — Sony Pictures Entertainment and Liberty Media Corp. — could do a little better than simply providing a hub for classic game shows.

From day one, Cronin has set his sights on expanding the network to include a broader gaming initiative with casino games, reality competition series, video game-based programs and interactive games – as well as documentaries on games and the people who play them.

“As a genre,” Cronin notes, “game shows have more of a proven success than many, many others. If you look at the big categories of genres that have become networks, news and sports have certainly been around since the beginning of television. But if you look at the first years of television — even back to the late '40s — game shows were there.” History, Cronin contends, is on GSN's side. And he's positioning the channel for growth not just in the U.S., but around the world.

Cronin, a veteran of two of the most globally minded media companies on the planet, News Corp. and Viacom Inc., says he saw the overseas opportunity for GSN right from the get go. “The other thing that I saw was that the people who worked at the network and the fans of the network were so passionate about games. And I think that's when a business works — when you have really passionate fans.”

CONVINCING THE MSOs

But initially, GSN's MSO affiliates weren't exactly passionate about the gaming brand. “There was some speculation, sure,” says Bob Gessner, president of Massillon Cable TV, which has carried the channel on its cable system since the late '90s. “There was a question of, 'Oh, wow, now there's a game show channel. What's next?'”

And many of those skeptics, says Dena Kaplan, GSN executive vice president of marketing, needed to be convinced that GSN was not simply going to continue along its original path as a channel that acquired old game show reruns — including several from one of its owners, Sony.

“As we got out into the MSO community, they realized that it was a really engaging product,” Kaplan recalls. “What separated the network [from the pack] was this notion that viewers could interact with it. And even though [GSN's] history was as an acquisition network — which seemed like maybe it was old — the fact that it was a network where we could engage our viewers made it fresh and different. And it was a very different position from all other networks. People could play along with game shows, unlike any other form of entertainment.”

Cronin's new programming strategy was part of a larger game plan to relaunch the channel with a name change; both the new name and the new shows debuted last March. While keeping its vintage fare in daytime, the new GSN premiered a number of original primetime series — including GSN's World of Blackjack, Fake-a-Date and the buddy competition show Kenny vs. Spenny — along with a handful of acquired programs like Star Search, Dog Eat Dog and Street Smarts.

“Whenever you take a move to reinvent your network, that's a bold move,” says Steve Moskow, president of Sony Pictures Television. “I think [the executive team] was quick to identify that they needed to do this.

“The challenge, and that's true with any cable network, is [identifying] your tent pole shows,” Moskow adds. “They've had a nice amount of success with some of the new shows they've put on, but the challenge is going to be finding those one or two shows that really define what the network is going forward.”

INTERACTIVE EDGE

One of the channel's greatest assets heretofore has been its ability to cross over into other media, say many insiders, particularly because of its interactive thrust. Currently, the GSN Interactive online division programs 77 hours of ITV.

The network will continue to roll out casino and reality-based gaming series, notes Ian Valentine, senior vice president of programming. Additionally, it will make an aggressive push by adding interactive elements to its blackjack franchise and upcoming poker series, as well as other new series in development like the pool room gaming project No Limit Nine Ball.

GSN will launch a major interactive initiative on Dec. 12 with a three-hour evening block called You Win Live, featuring programming from the GSN acquisition library of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Win Ben Stein's Money and The Weakest Link. The idea, Valentine says, is to make viewers aware of how easy it is to play along.

“GSN is a very unique network programming opportunity,” says Bill Fitzgerald, senior vice president of Liberty Media.

He believes it is in a category by itself, because it makes such a concerted effort to engage its audience with interactivity. “There is a fantastic opportunity for GSN to leverage its presence in the game space today, and take what it has learned from the interactive initiatives, and broaden those to create a much greater participation level of its audience base tomorrow.”

These interactive efforts also offer significant benefits to affiliates as well, GSN's Kaplan contends.

“The other wonderful thing from an affiliate standpoint is that we can track who's playing along, whether they have a cable modem or not,'' she explains. ''So we can do marketing with affiliates from our database of game registrants and help sell up — whether it's high-speed service or an upgrade to digital. So it's a great marketing tool for the network.”

The prizes that GSN awards add another benefit, she says. “The more you play, the more you win. And we share the credit with the operators,” she adds. “So it's really a win-win for GSN and our affiliates.”

THE INDEPENDENT FACTOR

Because GSN is one of the few remaining independent channels — albeit with two pretty powerful owners — it has added advantages, Cronin says.

“Our affiliates and our advertisers love to support independents, because they don't like to be victims of the leverage of the big guys,” Cronin explains. “They want us to succeed because they would like to have more competition on the programming side, so that has helped us.”

Being independent both provides and demands flexibility, Kaplan says. “We have to be that way partially because we are an independent. And we have to do things faster and better because of that.”

She adds that from a marketing standpoint, it can be tough, because the channel doesn't have the luxury of calling on a sister network to cross-promote its shows.

“We've got to be very clever about how we launch our shows and maximize press — of finding the angles. And that, I think, gives the network and our culture a very entrepreneurial spirit,” adds Kaplan.

Independence doesn't appear to be a weakness, says Brad Adgate, research director for the media-buying firm Horizon Media.

“I think they're doing OK so far being independent,” Adgate says, noting that GSN currently has a U.S. household penetration rate of 51.5%, a percentage that has increased continuously since 1999.

“If you're in 56 million homes, and you've only been measured by Nielsen [Media Research] for about five and a half years, that's not bad. So it can be done. You've gotta have hope for these guys.”

NEW RIVALS

Optimism at the channel runs deep, even as new channels like Edge TV seek to make a move on GSN's gaming territory.

“There are several new networks out there that are really niche networks, because they're really focused on just one genre,” Cronin says. “There are a couple of networks out there that are focused on casino games, another focused on video games, networks that are focused on reality — whether they've started already or they're going to be launched.

“We are offering all kinds of games,” he adds. We're much more broad-based. Our competition is other networks that are in 50 to 70 million homes — in terms of competition for viewers, competition for advertisers, competition for more distribution. That's who we look at, not start-up networks.”

Cronin sees the competition on other fronts as well — as consumers are lured by other Internet sites and options like Sony Corp.'s PlayStation gaming console.

It's not easy, he says, “but we're in the fun business, so we're having fun.”

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