TV makeovers

What does it take to stay on top? Sometimes even the best networks need a change

With dozens of cable networks vying for eyeballs in the 70 million U.S. cable subscriber homes, each network must be very much keyed in to what Americans want to see. And sometimes a network just needs a makeover.

Even for networks that started out with a focused strategy, such as Headline News, History and WE tv, the whims of persnickety American viewers as well as changing times and shifts in the competitive landscape require at least a refresh—if not an overhaul—every so often.

Most of those networks that have undergone a makeover say the biggest challenge was to actually make the leap. "Sometimes you have to push yourself—which instinctively you feel is the right thing to do," says Bob DeBitetto, exec VP-general manager, A&E Network.

"With all the great competition out there, you have to stay current, you have to stay competitive, you have to keep pace with what people are watching," says Mr. DeBitetto, who oversaw the development and launch of Bio, the updated and repositioned Biography Channel.

Bio's debut last summer included a new look, new name, new tagline and new logo, as well as a promise of more original programming. The first new show, premiering early next month, is the network's first talk show, hosted by actor William Shatner and called "Shatner's Raw Nerve."

For most networks, staying current does mean more original programming as well as redefining or doing a better job of branding themselves. Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment, says that as with consumer products, networks must think of themselves as brands to become part of a viewer's consideration set—which may only be 10 or so channels. "Many networks have taglines or themes, but they don't have a brand; and there's a distinct difference between a tagline and a brand," he says.

Mr. Koonin is the branding guru behind the makeovers of TNT (2001), TBS (2004) and truTV (2007). Readily acknowledging that TNT and TBS, established in the early days of cable, were a "little bit of alphabet soup named after the founder," he set out to transform them into brands, drawing on his earlier experience working at Coca-Cola Co. For TNT and TBS, that meant "shrinking to grow" by focusing on a single genre—drama for TNT and comedy for TBS.

For truTV, formerly Court TV, the challenge was exactly the opposite. Although courtroom programming was an important part of the network, the name was so specific that it didn't describe the range of fare offered. Consumer research indicated that what its viewers liked best was what Mr. Koonin describes as "engager" programming: programming that in addition to taking viewers into the courtroom also takes them to places and situations they couldn't go on their own.

The network now calls it "actuality" programming, represented by the upcoming "Black Gold," which will take viewers to work on an oil rig; "Maui Chopper," about helicopter rescues on the Hawaiian islands; and "Principal's Office," which follows school principals dealing with disruptive youngsters. As a result, truTV is chalking up some of its best numbers ever.

Like TNT and TBS, ABC Family found itself with a history and a name that didn't establish a clear brand position. After starting out as the Christian Broadcasting Network, the network evolved into the Fox Family network before being sold to ABC and taking its current name. Four years ago, it wasn't clear who the network's target audience was or where it was going to get its ratings, says Paul Lee, ABC Family president. Mr. Lee, who joined the network at that time to oversee the channel's marketing, programming, operations and creative direction, says, "Our purpose was to give it an audience, to give it a personality and create a brand
out of it."

ABC Family decided to focus on 14-to-28-year-olds—the Millennials generation, whose members, Mr. Lee says, are quite unlike the baby boomers and the Gen-Xers. "This is a generation that is super-plugged-in and super-passionate about their families," he says. "They are not rebelling against their parents; they love their parents. Connections to family and friends and emotional relationships are the absolute core of what drives them to Facebook and to television."

Mr. Lee says the network also wanted to clarify the definition of family, reclaiming it from those who had hijacked it for political and religious reasons and defining it for what it really is. As stated by Paul James, who plays Calvin on "Greek," the network's most-watched original series ever among adults 18 to 34, family is: "The people you call when you're in trouble, the people you most care about, the people you need."

The network's tagline, "A new kind of family," defines the family not as Ozzie and Harriet's generation might have, but as Millennials do—as diverse, Mr. Lee says. And the programming is designed to reflect today's families and relationships with all their diversity, dysfunction, passion, humor and heart.

For Headline News, after almost 25 years of following a "wheel" format around the clock—providing in 30 minutes the most important stories of the day—the whole news environment changed. So much more news was available through so many more outlets at all times during the day that by prime time, those interested already knew the big headlines. "In fact, we were partially responsible," says Ken Jautz, exec VP, CNN Worldwide, "because we launched what became the leading news Web site,"

Additionally, CNN wanted to differentiate Headline News from sibling network CNN in prime time and to offer complementary programming. The decision was made to offer a series of personality-centric point-of-view shows that started in early 2005.

Mr. Jautz likens them to the op-ed pages of newspapers and views the hosts as columnists. "We programmed them for what we called the three Ps—passion, personality and points-of-view—and we say they are not news shows and are not fronted by journalists."

The first personality to debut was Nancy Grace, identified as an ex-prosecutor, followed a few months later by radio personality Glenn Beck, with shows bearing their own names. Completing the block of Headline Prime from 7 p.m. to midnight weekdays (ET) is "Show Biz Tonight," hosted by A.J. Hammer.

With weekday prime time showing growth in every demo and up 82 percent in total viewers in the three years since the makeover, the network is debuting two new shows for the weekend evening block. "Not Just Another Cable News Show" takes a lighthearted look at people, politics and pop culture trends of the last 25 years using clips from the CNN library. "News to Me" is a user-generated show of citizen journalism and the stories behind the most-watched videos on the Internet, which was launched a year ago in a different time slot.

Sometimes networks change as the times change. WE tv started out appealing to women in 1997 as Romance Classics. Just four years later, it was rebranded
WE: Women's Entertainment, and two years ago became simply WE tv. "The goal has been to find original programming that resonates with women," says Kim Martin, exec VP-general manager. "We have been evolving based on our programming and where the brand has been going as a reflection of contemporary women.

"Our strategy is about original programming. Until you really get out there, put shows on the air and get feedback, you don't know what works and what doesn't. Here we are, three years after the initiation of the strategy, and we have a real sense of what has worked with viewers," she says.

Three areas have stood out: bridal programming, a type of programming she describes as "WE reveal" and another she calls "WE connect."

The network learned that bridal programming appeals to many more women than simply brides or brides-to-be, and shows in that genre such as "Bridezillas" and "Platinum Weddings" account for 30 percent of WE tv's original prime-time programming. "WE reveal" shows are a vicarious look into the lives of other women, such as "Women Behind Bars," which explores the lives of women who have been convicted of murder, and the "Secret Lives of Women," stories of women who, for example, are obsessive-compulsive or addicted to plastic surgery or super weight lifters who have bulked up their bodies.

The third type, "WE connect," represents programming that connects with viewers on an emotional level and is represented by the current critically acclaimed eight-part miniseries "High School Confidential," that follows 12 young women through their tumultuous high school years.

Staying fresh was also why the former History Channel simplified its brand to History and fine-tuned its logo last year. The move emphasizes the History brand as a growing multimedia company. Says Nancy Dubuc, exec VP-general manager, "We're called History all the time, and our channel represents a complete category of programming; so it seemed like a natural fit for us to become just History, especially as we enter the phase where brand extensions beyond linear TV are becoming more and more important for audiences. This positions us to better embrace those extensions across the board."

Explaining that the new design was not a radical change but one that highlights the network's strengths and reflects even stronger programming, Ms. Dubuc says more programs have been launched so the network has more appointment-viewing series.

"The great thing about being in the television business is it's never done," she says. "It keeps going. What was great today may not be great tomorrow, but you better have what's great tomorrow ready."