News

A Rose by Any Other Name …

3/21/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

A few months ago, a cable network employed Satan to hawk the rebranding of a New York religious cable service, The Prayer Channel, into NET (New Evangelism Television).

The devil, a short, fat guy with a moustache in a red suit, warns viewers away from the “good” channel, at one point noting his meal of “filet of soul.” (NET is affiliated with the Catholic Archdiocese of Brooklyn and programs religious news, lifestyle, entertainment and kids' programming.)

Companies and cable networks, in particular, will go to any length to appear cutting-edge. Last week, Sci Fi Channel joined the ranks of the name-changers, going from Sci Fi to Syfy, in part to create a new brand identity. Though office mates disagree, I never saw anything wrong with the old one. Sci Fi, so christened in 1992, was given its zippier Syfy at the behest of a brand-identity consultant, which helped lay out the campaign we'll soon see in print and on screen.

Syfy president Dave Howe said the name change “gives us the opportunities to imbue it with the values and the perception that we want it to have.” But if the intent is to lose the geeky patina, do they, as one in a chorus of bloggers who vented on the subject wrote, “intend to hide the repeat viewings of Star Trek and Stargate franchise shows?”

More importantly, the difficulty in trademarking a generic category such as “science fiction,” said Howe, led the network to rethink how it could stand out as a distinctive brand with its own word. But that “problem” hasn't hurt “Food Network” or “The Movie Channel” or “History Channel.”

Syfy, whose mispronunciation is already causing naughty chuckles in some offices, is the latest in a string of rebrands that has left many viewers a bit confused. Entertainment giant The Walt Disney Co. relaunched Toon Disney as Disney XD, targeting a category that has long eluded it: boys. Discovery Home is now Planet Green. And the change befuddled viewers most, CourTV into TruTV. Before that, Outdoor Life Network became OLN, then changed its name to Versus.

All these networks seek to do the same thing: to stand out in the crowd like James Edward Olmos at a United Nations meeting. The universe is expanding and it's never been harder to identify with viewers. Many channels are doing nothing more than trying to broaden the audience, which weakens the niche appeal. It's not a surefire way to audience either — TruTV ratings are down slightly from its days as Court TV, for example.

As entertainment options splinter, with more than 150 channels available from cable TV alone, networks are forced to set themselves apart. But fiddling with time-tested names can be tricky at best. A brand is more than just a logo.

September