Busty Babes, Yes Please. Female Viewers, No - Viacom Launching Spike TV

The New York Times

June 15, 2003

DOES America need laddie television? The man who feels that television lacks respect for his programming wishes (fast cars, James Bond and busty cartoon women) should rest assured: Viacom has been listening. Tomorrow it's launching Spike TV, "the first network for men."

As Albie Hecht, the president of Spike, pitched it to media buyers last month: "Think about it: three networks for women, and only one for men."

That may seem less than just, given dude-zones like ESPN, CNBC and the Playboy channel. But "there's this resident, I don't want to say anger, but it's a feeling of disenfranchisement" among men about TV these days, says Kevin Kay, Spike's executive vice president in charge of programming.

At least that was the theory that won out last fall in the MTV Networks Branding Central offices (it actually says that on the door). Spike is a renaming of TNN, which started 20 years ago as the Nashville Network, broadcaster of "Dallas" reruns, fishing shows and Nascar. By the time it was sold, along with CBS, to Viacom in 2000, it had lost Nascar and was, in its demographics, too old and poor for the new owner's tastes. Promptly renamed the National Network, it soon was home to WWE wrestling, "C.S.I." reruns and many episodes of "Blind Date" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation." That wiped 20 years off the demographics, which was a move in the right direction.

But who were the viewers they were trying to sell the channel to? When someone noticed that they were already almost two-thirds male, the idea of rebranding the whole, vague thing as the guy channel became clear. And there's good reason, what with the runaway success of so-called "beer and babes" magazine titles like Maxim and FHM, to think there's a new, "laddie" way of talking to men which is a guaranteed money-maker. When Mr. Hecht, 50, was working on the idea of Spike last fall, he walked into the office of his boss, Herb Scannell, the president of Nickelodeon, dumped a pile of men's magazines on his desk and announced, "We're going to own this."

The laddie formula isn't completely new to TV: there are elements of it in the broadcasts of Howard Stern (a good buddy of Viacom's president, Mel Karmazin) and the recently ended "Man Show" on Comedy Central (a Viacom channel). Jimmy Kimmel, the former host of the "Man Show," tries to keep some of that regular-guy spirit, even without the girls-on-trampolines, in his late-night show on ABC.

The idea for a men's network has been kicking around for a while. In fact, Mr. Kimmel and his producer, Daniel Kellison, once proposed it to Doug Herzog, then the president of Comedy Central. ("It's pretty simple: `Rockford Files' reruns, softcore porn after-hours," Mr. Kellison said. "Jimmy and I could run it in our sleep. I know they'll struggle with it and ultimately fail.") There's been some talk of a Maxim Entertainment Network, at least on the part of the magazine's publishers, though nothing's come of it yet. And TBS has long featured the slogan, "It's a guy thing."

But Mr. Scannell felt TBS lacked the guts to follow through on the slogan. "They were afraid of alienating half their audience," he said. Maybe they had too much to lose, which isn't as true of TNN. Though TNN is thoroughly distributed (to 82 million homes), most viewers still think of it as, at best, "a general entertainment commodity." During the first three months of 2003 the channel's ratings were down 16 percent from the year before, and it dropped from the eighth most popular basic cable station to 14th with an average prime-time audience of a little more than 1 million.

When Mr. Hecht's post-TNN vision won out, he moved into a large, purple-carpeted corner office in Branding Central. MTV Networks are branding fundamentalists, fanatics for brand purity right down to the smallest detail of where their employees work. That's why Nickelodeon's offices are cartoony, colorful and off-kilter; TV Land's have a vaguely 50's Technicolor feel and MTV's have the industrial-metallic edge of sporty adolescence. Mr. Hecht calls this the "filter." When Spike moves to its own offices, the look will be as thoroughly coordinated as everything else, from the promos to the notepads. Already, the details are beginning to emerge in his temporary offices: note the twin black-leather Eames lounge chairs and martini glasses perched with a cocktail shaker on the windowsill. "Everything has to be squeezed through that filter," Mr. Hecht said.

What will come out of the filter will have, he said, "the rawness and the wink" that guys like (Maxim is, after all, as much as anything a humor magazine). The trick is to not appear chauvinist or downscale, which would repel media buyers. In any event, Viacom is a company famous for its periodic daylong diversity-training seminars. When asked if MTV Networks was going into the lad-TV business, its president, Tom Freston, seemed a bit taken aback by the specter of babes-in-bikinis (forget, for a moment, MTV's flesh-peddling spring break marathons). "We're consciously staying away from that," he said. And in fact, Mr. Hecht is quick to compare the tone to GQ's rather than Maxim's, ignoring GQ's identity crisis brought on by the success of its upstart laddie rivals.

The first elements of the channel's regime change are already in place: intentionally cheesy promos by two grinning, insincere Hollywood-agent types introduce the new animation shows, including "Stripperella," in which Pamela Anderson gives voice to a stripper/crime fighter named Erotica Jones; a return of the too-juvenile-for-Nickelodeon "Ren and Stimpy"; and one called "Gary the Rat" in which Kelsey Grammer gives the voice to a lawyer so loathsome that he is turned into a giant rat. One funny show that's already on the air is "Most Extreme Elimination Challenge," where an old, goofy "Fear Factor"-like Japanese reality TV show is overdubbed by fatuous "Wide World of Sports"-style color commentary. There's a basketball-inspired league game which includes trampolines called "Slamball," and a show in the works called "Ride With Funkmaster Flex," where the hip-hop D.J. Funkmaster Flex drives around with people like Eminem and Li'l Kim discussing their obsessively customized cars. There will be a good deal of James Bond, the Video Games Awards and the GQ Men of the Year Awards. CBS Marketwatch will produce daily business news, and the laddie title Stuff will produce a series of reports called "A Guy and His Stuff." Eventually, it's to be about half original programming.

(Then there's the name itself. Mr. Hecht pulled out an old Jules Feiffer cartoon he'd had blown up into flashcards to explain it: a man lamenting his ordinary name asks in the end to be called Spike. Last week Spike Lee went to court to keep Viacom from damaging his name.)

[On Thursday, Mr. Lee won a preliminary court order blocking the name change. A trial is set for June 23.]

"On Nick, it was kids first, never parents at the center of the story," said Mr. Kay, the man whose programming successes include finding "SpongeBob SquarePants." "So it's got to be from the male point of view. Second, it's got to be innovative, by which I mean clicker-proof in some way, in how it's made or shot. Third, it's got to be self-reliant. Guys don't want to ask direction. So it's got to be entrepreneurial, do it yourself. Fourth, guys like to compete, that's got to be in there. Fifth, it's got to be aspirational. We're looking at being younger and richer. It's one of the reasons we're doing the GQ Men of the Year. And sixth, it's got to be unapologetic. This was hotly debated. Guys like beer and babes and things that explode — let's just admit that and move on. Guys like Pamela Anderson, fine. And seven, it has to be clever. We want to be smart. We don't want to be Springer, though guys would watch that."

"Is it an antidote for Lifetime?" Mr. Kay, 48, asked later. "In focus groups, guys start clapping when they hear the idea. I was in Houston last week and a guy stands up and says: `You should call the channel Me. It's all for me.' "

Carl Swanson is a writer living in New York.