Spike's Upscale Climb


Two months after its facelift, Spike TV may be beginning to take stride with its target male demo, helped out by a singular hit: The Joe Schmo Show.

And Spike is doing it without traditional male staple programming, such as live sports or soft-core adult shows, fare from World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. notwithstanding.

The network wants to take more of a highbrow turn and is planning to launch news programming and a series of documentaries in 2004.

"Our brand is headed toward making guys more confident," Spike TV president Albie Hecht said. "We want to inspire and inform them through bold and entertaining programming that makes a difference in their lives."

The network has seen some encouraging Nielsen performances over the past month, under its male-targeted Spike TV brand, after struggling to establish a core identity and viewers as the pop-culture leaning TNN: The National Network.

After experiencing a 20% decline to a 0.8 household average in primetime during first-quarter 2003, compared to the prior-year period, the network scored a 0.9 third-quarter rating, matching last year's performance, according to an ABC Cable Networks Group analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

During September's primetime, the network was virtually even in terms of delivering an audience of 18-to-34-year-old men (202,000 viewers in 2003, compared to 200,000 in 2002) and among those 18 to 49 (401,000 to 408,000), according to Turner Entertainment Research data.

On a total-day basis, however, Spike was up 6% among men 18 to 49 and 12% among men 18 to 34, compared to September 2002.

'Guys Are Coming'

"More guys are coming to the network, and more adults are coming to the network," Hecht said. "Everything since launch has been great, driven by new shows such as Ride With Funkmaster Flex and Joe Schmo— they're terrific examples of what connects with the audience."

While the network continues to rely heavily on acquired programming, such as the Monday night WWE Raw
block and repeats of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
and Star Trek: The Next Generation— as well as old James Bond flicks — the network's recent ratings spike has been fueled mostly by the success of its pseudo-reality series The Joe Schmo Show.

Schmo, in which an unsuspecting man is placed in a staged reality show, has slowly built its viewership. The Oct. 14 episode drew its highest audience among males 18 to 49 with 742,000 — a 75% jump from the show's Sept. 2 premiere — despite going head-to-head with game six of the National League Championship Series between the Chicago Cubs and Florida Marlins.

Overall, the show, which concludes Oct. 28, averaged a 1 household rating through its first eight episodes. Schmo
is part of the network's goal of providing an array of unique programming targeted to male viewers, said Hecht.

Docus And News

To that end, the network — eschewing the lure of providing testosterone-heavy action and sexy programming — is opting instead for more enlightening and uplifting fare.

Headed by former broadcast-news producer Keith Brown, Spike TV has created a new documentary and news division, which hopes to create as many as four documentaries in 2004, ranging in topics from personal finance to social issues like fatherhood.

"We know guys are interested in documentaries," Hecht said, pointing to the popularity of such films among men. "This can be a new outlet for a new wave of creative filmmakers to show their work on a national basis."

On the news front, Hecht said the network will provide coverage of the upcoming 2004 presidential election campaign. It will also profile some of the up-and-coming athletes involved in the Olympics, under the watchful eye of Brown.

He will also oversee the network's current news efforts — the daily news program Spike MarketWatch, its auto-based vignette series Zero to Sixty
and Men's Health Minutes, which will premiere in first quarter 2004.

What Men Want

Brown, who was has won a Peabody Award and Emmy Awards during a career in which he has worked for NBC News, CBS News and PBS, said the documentary and news programming will find an audience among a large contingent of males, who hold diverse interests.

"What this gives us is an opportunity to draw in new audiences. Men are interested in politics, financial news, how to support our families, our careers and success," Brown said. "To say that men are only interested in sports or women is to look at men very one-dimensionally."

That's not to say that Spike TV won't continue to offer a little of both. The network still plans nightly highlights of the National Collegiate Athletic Association men's basketball tournament, through its partnership with tournament rightsholder and sister network CBS.

But Hecht doesn't believe the network needs to offer a bevy of live sports to draw men, programming that easily made ESPN the No. 1 network reaching males 18 to 34 and 18 to 49 during September.

"I think you have to be involved in sports, but I don't think you need live sports per se — the guys can get that in a lot of places," he said. "But where else can guys get that, outside of sports, through an entertainment-based network like ours? It's really important for the community to have an alternative to reach guys."

'Fantasy Of Sports'

Later this year, he added, the network will launch 10 Top Things a Guy Should Experience: The Sports Edition, which provides an up-close overview of such big sports events as the Super Bowl, World Series, Indy 500 and Kentucky Derby.

"I think experiencing the fantasy of sports is a big area for us to get into," Hecht said. "That's going to be a place where we can play."

The network is also planning an auto-racing reality series next year that will follow the lives of racers from the American Motorcyclist Association Supercross Series and the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing Busch Series.

In addition, the network also offers Slamball, a hybrid of basketball and extreme sports that is pulling so-so numbers. Since moving into its current 9 p.m. Saturday night time slot in early September from Monday nights, Slamball has averaged a 0.3 rating.

Hecht also said the network will not indulge trashy, sexually pervasive content featuring scantily clad women made popular by the success of "lad" magazines like FHM and Stuff.

"Women are obviously one of the interests of men, but just like Esquire covers or GQ covers them, that's our point of view," Hecht said. "We're not just looking for one type of male viewer. We believe that by addressing all guys' interests, that will draw advertisers looking for male viewers."

Rat's Fate Unclear

Some advertisers have apparently taken notice.

"In terms of perception, they are uniquely focused," Katz Television Media Group vice president and director of programming Bill Carroll. "They've been able to break out with The Joe Schmo Show, an original production that's getting a lot of word of mouth. Ultimately, that's what helps not only in the consumer's mind. But in the advertiser's mind that it is indeed a unique opportunity and that they're on target."

There also have been some bumps on the net's revamped course. Spike executives remain undecided about whether to bring back its much-touted Thursday-night animated block for a second season. After a strong start, ratings for Stripperella, Gary the Rat and Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon dropped precipitously during each show's summer run.

"We had good success with our animation and we're looking at it, but we haven't made a decision," Hecht said.