Star appeal

When it comes to attracting viewers, nothing works like celebrity

Turn on any cable network today and you'll be drawn in by personalities who attract eyeballs and profits to a surging industry.

On leading news channels, journalists and pundits with star appeal—and stylish coiffures—are capturing hearts and minds, some with probing questions and healthy skepticism, others with rapid-fire show intros and jaw-dropping insight.

On the National Geographic Channel, there's a guy who can explain how darn near anything works and another who can transform naughty mutts into good dogs. And they do it with panache. Can any true sports fan live without ESPN and its colorful anchors? "He-could-go-all-the-way!"

Whatever a viewer's passion, there's a cable network featuring hosts with just the right character, expertise, style, bravado, sense of humor—or a certain je ne sais quois—to keep him coming back for more. Whether it's the "Dog Whisperer," "Mad Money's" manic Jim Cramer, oh-so-cool Mike Rowe of "Dirty Jobs" or the Heidi Klum/Tim Gunn tag team of "Project Runway," personalities create a much-needed buzz for cable networks competing for attention in a 300-channel universe.

Phil Griffin, senior VP of NBC News and executive in charge of MSNBC, points out that talent has always been a factor in the TV news business. Remember Walter Cronkite?

"There's nothing new here. But in cable it's intensified," Mr. Griffin says. "It's about personality, it's about point of view, and there are so many different levels to it."

Those levels are essentially stepping-stones to success—having the right person hosting the right show, creating a magical mix of content and talent. And throw in a healthy portion of passion on both sides of the screen.

"The fundamental driver of cable audiences is still passion for a particular area," says Steve Gigliotti, exec VP-ad sales and emerging media for Scripps Networks, which includes such networks as HGTV and Food Network. "If viewers follow their passion for a show, they end up watching it based on its content and the celebrity."

CNN President Jonathan Klein says, "We have personalities who are passionate about covering the news and are authentic in explaining the world to our viewers. That's what connects. It's different from having a generic show and hiring somebody to turn over the vowels. You've got to have people live and breathe the news and convey their passion for it on the screen."

Echoes MSNBC's Mr. Griffin: "I want to be provocative, smart, colorful, fun, interesting. It's an interesting world—let's celebrate it. We're going to examine everything."

Steve Burns, exec VP-content for the National Geographic Channel, says exploration and authenticity are his network's lifeblood. "You can't separate the two—the personalities and the content—especially in a place like National Geographic," says Mr. Burns. "It's the home of all these passionate explorers and scientists. They're connected to the subjects.

"People trust them. They are entertained. Because [our hosts] know their subjects so well, it's a pleasure to watch them work; it's a pleasure to experience their insights. They're trusted guides through everything that's wondrous about the world."

Cable TV has used personalities to build viewer and marketer interest since its early days. The right personalities have sparked water-cooler talk—and driven viewers to search for a particular show on a particular network anywhere on the channel lineup. Anchor Chris Berman has drawn sports fans to ESPN—and to parent ABC—since 1979. Starting with the now-departed Emeril Lagasse more than a decade ago, Food Network has built a collection of culinary experts, from Alton Brown to Bobby Flay to Rachael Ray, each with his or her own take on the world of food.

And who can forget the thunderous network tag, "This is CNN," delivered by actor James Earl Jones? His voice-over lent the network a certain gravitas in its early years.

Since its launch in 1980 as the first 24-hour all-news network, CNN has cultivated many talents, including Bernard Shaw, its original anchor. Mr. Shaw, along with correspondents such as Peter Arnett and Christiane Amanpour, gave U.S. viewers a front-row seat when they reported the first attacks of the Persian Gulf War in January 1991 while Baghdad was being bombed.

CNN's current crop of stars includes icons Larry King, Lou Dobbs and Wolf Blitzer, plus Campbell Brown, who anchors CNN Election Center; medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta; and Anderson Cooper, whose coverage of Hurricane Katrina put him on the map as a bona fide star.

"Anderson calls it like he sees it," says Mr. Klein. "He's not heading out with a preconceived notion and he's not ignoring facts that are inconvenient.

"During Katrina, he was standing knee-deep in the story—literally—and was being told by officials in Washington a completely different set of facts, and he just didn't accept that. And that resonated with viewers."

The journalist's Emmy-winning style and prime-time show, "Anderson Cooper 360°," have resulted in a contract said to be worth more than $4 million annually.

MSNBC, launched in 1996, has increasingly relied on a set of smart, opinionated hosts to establish itself as "The Place for Politics." That focus has resulted in record ratings for MSNBC this year as Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have slugged it out for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Like CNN, MSNBC enjoys a corps of experienced news professionals, including David Gregory and Chris Matthews. The network also shares Tim Russert and Tom Brokaw, longtime stars of parent NBC's news coverage—as well as Brian Williams, who first starred on MSNBC before taking over "NBC Nightly News." But they also believe they have a not-so-secret weapon who will eventually vanquish the competition: the top-rated "Countdown With Keith Olbermann," which mixes news, humor and criticism with a speed and precision designed to define the show and host as one-of-a-kind.

"His show fits him like a glove. He's unique, he's clever, he's ironic," says Mr. Griffin. "Keith Olbermann is frigging interesting. And in a world where you have so many different options for news and information, viewers want to go with the guy who's smart and clever and fun to watch."

But not all of the hot personalities are doing the news. One of the newest talents on the National Geographic Channel is a self-described "normal guy" who just happens to possess the ability to explain complex things in simple terms—a "Mr.Wizard" for the new millennium.

"I have a tremendous love for how things work and how things are put together in factories," says Marshall Brain. His show, "Who Knew? With Marshall Brain," which debuted March 13, takes us into the world of product design, manufacturing and testing. Ever wonder how speedboats, golf balls and fireworks are made? Watch
the show.

Mr. Brain, who founded the popular Web site and has degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, says he doesn't feel like a celebrity. "If you were to ask me to describe myself, I don't think I would ever use the word." But he says a host's enthusiasm and expertise create a winning show.

Similarly, he says, "Cesar's show with dogs is a great example of a person who has an amazing skill"—referring to dog behavior specialist Cesar Millan, who hosts "The Dog Whisperer" on NGC. "Cesar loves and truly understands dogs." Both men figure into the network's success.

"Marshall's been quite generous with his time in helping promote his show," says Mr. Burns. "Cesar is not only a unique talent, but will go out and talk with our advertising groups. Each participates in a range of ways to make sure the NGC story and their series get promotion."

The right personality ensures that a show's content captivates viewers. Presidential primary results, dog training tips, scientific explanations and interior design are just information without a personality to make it good TV.

"Great programs are a huge component of what's driving the cable industry's growth," says Vern Yip, host of "Deserving Design" on HGTV. "We can't overlook what viewers want—great information and entertainment. They have to come together to make a successful show."

Mr. Yip, who has won a slew of design awards, has undergraduate degrees in economics and chemistry, an MBA and a graduate degree in architecture. His mission is to help people create the right environment for them. In his current show, he redesigns homes of deserving individuals who may not otherwise be able to afford it.

"I want to dispense great design advice to people across the country and entertain them with real stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things," Mr. Yip says.

Says Scripps' Mr. Gigliotti: "Having celebrities is a way to draw attention. But if you don't support that compelling content, the audience will simply tune away."