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Rebranded Nets Settle Into New Skin

12/02/2001 7:00 PM Eastern

Rebranding a basic-cable network with a well-established identity is often a risky, long-term prospect. But several services that recently received facelifts have reported positive early returns.

Executives with Turner Network Television, Trio, Hallmark Channel and TNN: The National Network said their respective rebranding efforts have yielded gains in both distribution and viewership, while providing a more-defined environment for advertisers.

Networks that seek to change their moniker or programming philosophy do so for a number of reasons. Some aim to expand the reach of their audience, while others strive to appeal to an audience demographic that's more advertiser-friendly, or more narrowly targeted.

RATINGS ARE KEY

But more often than not, it's ratings that play a major role in determining the overall success of any network rebranding effort. When Viacom Inc. overhauled the country music-oriented The Nashville Network in September of 2000 — renaming it The National Network — the idea was to expand the service's loyal, but narrowly targeted audience while driving overall viewership figures, according to TNN general manager Diane Robina.

More than a year after its relaunch, TNN's strategy has paid dividends. The network's 1.0 primetime household rating in the third quarter was up 43 percent from the year-earlier span.

Of course, much of that gain can be attributed to the acquisition of programming from World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc., most notably the Monday-night juggernaut Raw. But Robina said the network's rebranding has yielded ratings increases even off the mat.

In September, the network began running Star Trek: The Next Generation, the first of three Star Trek
spinoffs set for its schedule. And TNN's 0.7 primetime fourth-quarter rating through Nov. 7 was up 26 percent over the same period last year, sans WWF programming.

The growth is even more significant among viewers aged 18-to-49 through that fourth-quarter period: The network has pinned a 165 percent jump, minus the WWFE shows.

"If I didn't have the WWF, I don't think I would have been so successful in driving people to over shows," Robina said. "But viewers are watching TNN programming other than wrestling."

The ratings story is also encouraging for Hallmark Channel. Formerly the Odyssey Network, the network's August 2001 relaunch under the family-friendly brand has helped increase its household primetime rating from a 0.5 from a 0.3, compared with the same August to October period last year, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Crown Media U.S. L.L.C. president and CEO Lana Corbi, whose company operates the U.S. Hallmark Channel, attributed the Nielsen uptick to the prestige and appeal of the Hallmark brand. In noting the positive impact of the name change, Corbi said that viewers are watching about 25 more minutes of Hallmark programming than last year.

"That's a demonstration that, in fact, viewers were serious when they said this was the type of programming that was missing in the television landscape," she said. "We have incredible momentum, and this is a testament of an incredible brand that is now finding expression 24 hours a day.

"But it's not a new expression, because Hallmark has been on television and has a wonderful legacy of movies through the Hallmark Hall of Fame, and people know that and in knowing that comes an expectation for the brand," she added.

Not every recently rebranded network has garnered an immediate ratings boost. TNT's third-quarter 1.5 average in primetime was down 12 percent from last year, according to Nielsen data.

But TNT executive vice president and general manager Steve Koonin pointed out that the service's ratings have been adversely affected by the loss of WCW Monday Nitro, World Championship Wrestling's Monday-night franchise.

Once a ratings winner for TNT and TBS Superstation, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. networks stopped carrying WCW fare last March, after parent AOL Time Warner Inc. sold the grappling promotion's assets to archrival WWFE.

Koonin said wrestling didn't fit into TNT's dramatic programming philosophy, although its loss initially buffeted the network's primetime average. Without WCW, however, TNT has been evincing a modest improvement of late: From June 1 through Nov. 9, TNT's primetime ratings, sans WCW, were up 7 percent over the same period last year, according to Nielsen data.

More importantly for the network, ratings for its target audience — adults 18-to-49 — grew 17 percent.

"We couldn't be about drama if we had wrestling, but it was the No. 1 rated program on our air," Koonin said. "Yet we were unwavering in taking our inventory and wrapping it with a message about who we are and what we know."

Repositioning has also helped Trio gain distribution. When the USA Networks-owned service relaunched as the "popular arts channel featuring a mix of dance, music, Broadway and film programming," the network was barely in 10 million homes. But USA Emerging Networks president Patrick Vien said the network's promise of presenting original and rarely-seen programming — and its push for positioning on digital tiers — will enable Trio to reach 14 million households by year's end.

"When you think that only 18 months ago we were at 5 million homes, it shows that operators understand the value of the network in the digital environment," he said.

"The way to feel comfortable and effective in a 200-channel environment is to feed a niche that is under-served and to do it with big ambition," Vien added. "We feel empowered by the birth of our strategy and we are by no means slowing down."

To further improve its chances at distribution, Vien said Trio is experimenting with its rate card, combining it with Home Shopping Network and other USA-owned networks to give operators greater value across several services.

"Given the competition, we have to be flexible with operators," Vien said, declining to be more specific.

THE CHALLENGE OF CHANGE

Don't get the idea that embarking on a major rebranding initiative is a walk in the park. The millions of dollars spent in advertising and promotion aside, executives said getting the new brand across to consumers and sponsors remains a difficult process — perhaps even more so than when launching a network from scratch.

"When you're launching something, it's a clean piece of paper and canvas, and everything you do is yours," said Robina. "If you make a mistake, you take out your eraser and change it.

"But it's very challenging to be given something where you may have a lot of deals that you wouldn't have done, or spend a lot of time renegotiating those deals," she said, without revealing whether any extant TNN programming falls into that category.

For Hallmark, developing programming that lives up to the network's storied name poses a tremendous challenge — one borne out in a survey conducted prior to the relaunch, which indicated that 74 percent of respondents believed Hallmark events to be of high quality.

About the same percentage of respondents said that Hallmark fare would be good for the whole family. There was also a high percentage of trust in products that carried the Hallmark brand.

"It certainly is a high bar to reach, because for us to have the rights to that name, we have to provide our viewers with a payoff, which is an expectation of the brand," Corbi said.

TNT's task is repositioning an established, broad-based entertainment service into a more narrowly defined dramatic niche — an evolution that Koonin acknowledged won't happen overnight.

"We saw that we were known by some for movies, both original and acquired, by some for the NBA, by some for wrestling, by some for Westerns — in essence, we were known for our parts," Koonin said. "Now we made the shift from being known for our parts to being known for the sum of our parts. That takes time.

"Lifetime [Television] took about seven years to accomplish the success they're seeing today. If you're credible in leading the consumer to think about you within a certain light, they'll accept it."

Operators, for the most part, embrace rebranding endeavors if the network is able to reach a substantial enough audience to justify the change.

"If the network totally loses focus and viewers being turning them off, then it becomes a cost/value issue for us," said one top-10 MSO executive. "At that point, I have to determine whether the network is worth the price I'm paying for it."

PROGRAMMING GAMBITS

Ultimately, programming plays a defining role in the overall success — or failure — of reshaping a network brand. Trio hopes to bolster its case by developing more original programming. The service plans to debut more than 20 new series and specials in 2002.

Among the shows premiering on Trio next year: Broadway Legends, an original one-hour documentary series that will feature interviews with more than 20 Broadway notables; The Score, which will provide an intimate look at the relationships between film directors and music composers; and Walkthrough, an hour-long, celebrity-hosted art series.

"I haven't heard of any digital networks that have that ambitious a programming slate," added Vien. "It's all about providing subscribers with an opportunity not to see repackaged programming, but to have the satisfaction of seeing quality specials and series."

Star Trek
and WWFE programming are driving viewers to TNN, but Robina said original programming would inevitably define the network. TNN's schedule will be 50 percent original by 2005, she said.

The network's lineup presently consists of about 30 percent original shows, including Robot Wars, which averages a 1.0 rating In 2002, the network will launch Conspiracy Zone, as well as some comedic programs.

"By 2003, we hope to have scripted series, but no made-for-TV movies," added Robina.

TNT and Hallmark are also tapping a mix of original and acquired series, specials and movies to get their message across to viewers. TNT is touting its package of high-profile, off-network series such as Law and Order, ER
and NYPD Blue — as well as original movies like Mists of Avalon — as its calling cards for dramatic programming.

But Koonin admits that to be wildly successful, the network must develop signature original dramatic series, an elusive quarry thus far.

"The No. 1 recipe would be the development of original series," said Koonin. "That would help define us even faster, and Witchblade
has a shot of doing that for us.

"We have lots of other conversations and projects in development that can do that," he added. He would not provide specifics.

TNT's second-window airings of Charmed— repurposed from sister broadcast network The WB — are considered part of TNT's slate of originals, according to Koonin. He refers to the series as a "virtual original."

Early on, ratings for the Charmed
reprises have been modest: TNT's first five airings of the show — which runs the Tuesday after its Thursday WB airing — have averaged a 1.2 household rating.

But Charmed
has increased ratings for the network's key 18-to-49 demo by 26 percent, compared to last year. The show is also attracting new viewers to TNT.

"We found that 97 percent of the consumers do not overlap between the two, so we're bringing a unique audience," he said. "It's not a huge household number, but it delivers huge demographic ratings for us."

Hallmark will rely heavily on the company's signature series and specials to attract young adults and families to the network. But it is also planning to roll out several original movies and shows in 2002.

"Our program strategy is to have one major original event each month, whether it's an original series, movie or miniseries," Corbi said. "We believe that gives people something to expect from us — we can promote those titles, people will know there's something great and fun and exciting coming from the channel once a month."

To better leverage the Hallmark film library, the network has also expanded its movie blocks beyond its weekday primetime and midnight shows to the weekends.

"We're trying to be responsive to viewers and determine what we believe they're looking for from our brand," said Corbi.

ADVERTISING ACCESS

Network executives also said a more defined message has helped attract new advertisers and affords greater exposure for current clients.

TNT, for example, is working with tissue-maker Kleenex on a campaign that features a "crying is very dramatic" element. Each week, the network features a "Kleenex scale" to determine how many tissues viewers need to screen a particular flick.

"What it does is link Kleenex with our brand drama, with an execution that works for both of us," Koonin said. "Kleenex is now with us in a bigger way. They're certainly invested in our programming — we've changed the relationship from just buying weight to building brands, and that is invaluable."

Koonin said similar deals that will play advertisers' brands off the TNT brand are in the works.

Hallmark is experimenting with advertiser-supported programs, through which a single marketer would sponsor an original movie or series, or even co-produce an original program for the network.

"We're looking at advertiser opportunities that provide an environment across multiple platforms, whether it be on the channel, through an interactive project that we're developing, through video-on-demand offerings or through some retail tie-ins," Corbi said. "We're essentially taking all of the assets that we touch as company and packaging them to find interesting, important and impactful ways for an advertising message to be viewed."

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