Success Spurs New Strategies

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

By Julie Liesse

Turn on The Weather Channel on a Friday evening, and catch "Flick and a Forecast," a movie with a weather-related theme. It might be Bill Murray's portrayal of a weatherman reliving the same day over and over again in "Groundhog Day." Or the evening might feature Jack Nicholson driven to madness while stuck in a snowstorm in "The Shining."

During movie breaks, meteorologist Jen Carfagno offers insights on the weather phenomena—hurricanes, tornadoes, winds, snowstorms—featured in the flicks.

"Flick and a Forecast" joins a growing portfolio of long-form programming that augments The Weather Channel's mainstay, live weather news. Four more series are set to debut in the coming year.

As Beth Lawrence, exec VP-ad sales for The Weather Channel Cos., says, "This is not your father's Weather Channel."

The cable industry was built on a foundation of strong, focused brands, many of which connected with dedicated, passionate audiences. As the cable business grows and matures, its brands are maturing as well.

Long-established brands such as A&E Television Networks' HISTORY and NBC Universal's Syfy are building on their original success by reaching out to expand their audiences.

Other networks are getting a facelift and a new, expanded mission—such as Travel Channel, where new owner Scripps Networks has brought in President Laureen Ong to build on the network's successes and turn it into "the default destination for all things travel." If Ms. Ong's experience developing the National Geographic Channel is any guide, expect a broader definition of travel as an umbrella for the network's programming.

Even networks with roots in what was essentially utilitarian programming—such as The Weather Channel and TV Guide Network—are evolving into much more than simply on-demand information.

Sean Cunningham, president of the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau, says he believes these brands merely reflect the growth of cable television. "This is another consumer brand category that is heading into a cycle of mature branding. One of the things is how to grow the aura of that master brand and yet provide underneath it the authenticity and utility that consumers look for from the brand," he says.

"It's a great challenge to have, to be at this level of maturity. And as they mature, like all great brands, these cable networks hopefully will be razor sharp and remember their connection to their core consumers as they expand and evolve their identity and utility."

Nancy Dubuc, president of HISTORY, agrees. "When you look at cable next to broadcast television, we are still a very young industry, but one that has matured very quickly. What you are seeing now is a lot of brands that are 10, or 15 or 20 years old—in the big picture, still relatively young—following a natural progression in terms of maturation," she says.

"At the end of the day, we are in a business of growth and creativity. To have those two components you need to be constantly serving up what audiences want next—the next great thing, whether that be in terms of quality, creativity or character. That is the nature of the kind of creative business we are in."

Building on 'The great big H'

When Ms. Dubuc took the helm at HISTORY three years ago, she said, "We had to climb on the shoulders of that great big H," the HISTORY logo. "That H had spent a decade establishing itself, building credibility for itself and creating one of the most well-known icons in media. We did not want to change that; we wanted to build on it."

The goal was to continue offering viewers great stories about American history, ancient history and military history—the network's bread and butter—but also add "adventure, exploration, natural history and pop culture, every one of the genres that could be related to history," she says.

Part of the trick would be to change the execution. Ms. Dubuc says HISTORY needed to tell its great stories in ways relevant to today's television viewer. "If people are listening to CDs and you insist on keeping your music on LPs, you won't be around anymore," she says. That meant more personal storytelling among the 450 hours of original programming HISTORY produces each year.

The result has been hit series such as "Ax Men" and "Ice Road Truckers," and the two newest luminaries in the HISTORY lineup, "American Pickers" and "Pawn Stars." Each of the four series shows history in the making through the eyes and work of true American characters. Each is definitely a more nuanced take on history.

"I don't have to tell the history enthusiast that the 'Ax Men' of the Pacific Northwest, still living the life of four generations ago, are the last living embodiment of what the American frontier was really like," Ms. Dubuc says. "History is not dates, facts and dead people. It's about people making choices and how those choices create history."

"American Pickers" chronicles the travels of Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, self-described "modern archaeologists," who dig through crumbling barns and old basements in the search for treasures that tell stories about American life. "Pawn Stars" features a Las Vegas pawn shop whose team is constantly evaluating and appraising items brought in as potential collateral—an old jukebox, a 1775 Massachusetts war bond.

"Pawn Stars," which launched in November, was one of the hottest prime-time series on cable for the first quarter of 2010, with "American Pickers" right behind it. During the quarter, HISTORY's viewership among adults 18 to 49 and 25 to 54 each rose 17 percent over the previous year, according to Nielsen Media Research. With "Ax Men" wrapping up its third season to record viewership and "Truckers" returning for a new season in June, Ms. Dubuc says HISTORY "is poised to end the year with four of the top 10 nonfiction series on cable."

Imagining life beyond starships

Like HISTORY, Syfy was successful with its core audience—but sensed an opportunity to be more.

Under the original Sci Fi Channel moniker, the network debuted in 1992 and spent a decade as the home of traditional science fiction fare: "monsters and aliens," as Senior VP Blake Callaway puts it, and classic series such as "Star Trek" and "Battlestar Galactica" that were near and dear to the hearts of sci-fi aficionados. The network's first breakthrough was in December 2002, when it produced a 10-part Stephen King miniseries, demonstrating a commitment to original programming.

A second milestone was the 2006 debut of "Eureka"—a character-based show with a touch of humor that was set on Earth. " 'Eureka' was the embodiment of where the brand was going," Mr. Callaway says.

"We continued to expand our programming, and at some point the next logical step was: How do we embrace the genre but actually stand for broader programming?" he says. "Especially advertisers tended to think of us as a niche network even though our programming was broader. We had the space shows people expected, but we also had 'dramadies' and reality shows that pushed the envelope."

The decision was made to rebrand the channel with a name that seemed less restrictive. To much fanfare (and a few initial grumbles from longtime fans), the new Syfy network debuted last July, along with its tagline, "Imagine Greater."

At the same time, the network premiered "Warehouse 13," now the most successful series in its history. The show has lightness and humor like "Eureka" and, Mr. Callaway says, "just enough science fiction for our core fans but also the elements that brought in new audiences." Those audiences are slightly more upscale and more gender-balanced.

Looking forward to the coming year, he says the new branding "gives us permission to touch new programming formats and genres that we haven't visited before, but still feel true to the brand." For example, the network is developing "Marcel's Quantum Kitchen," a reality series starring chef and "molecular gastronomist" Marcel Vigneron, whose team will create and execute "extraordinary celebrations and events."

Under the imagination umbrella, the network has seven other new reality series in development, featuring inventors, illusionists, feng shui masters, special-effects artists and paranormal tales. Among cable entertainment networks during 2009, Syfy was behind only A&E in terms of the number of hours of original programming airing in prime time.

"I don't know if cable networks are any different than consumer package goods companies," Mr. Callaway says. "Everyone evolves with the times. Sometimes that might be a fresh coat of paint, sometimes a new name or new idea."

More than 'a man and a map'

At The Weather Channel, "it's not just the man and the weather map" anymore, Ms. Lawrence says. The network made its foray into long-form programming after surveying viewers who said they enjoyed weather-related programming on other networks. But the network has been vigilant in making sure that all its new series stay true to the 28-year-old brand; "Flick and a Forecast" features only titles that have given a starring role to the science and drama behind weather events.

In addition to "Storm Stories," which debuted in 2003, and the 2-year-old "When Weather Changed History," TWC this year added to its portfolio "Weather Proof" and "Cantore Stories." The latter features meteorologist Jim Cantore traveling to extreme weather environments around the world. The two new series, showcased on Sunday evening, boosted viewership 34 percent among adults 25 to 54, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Every quarter of the coming year, The Weather Channel will add another new original series: "Lightning Rod," "Storm Riders," "Forensic Weather" and "Weather: Caught on Camera"—the latter inviting viewers to submit their own footage of dramatic weather events.

The big red Chiclet

Like The Weather Channel, TV Guide Network started as one of cable's utility channels—featuring scrolling TV listings. But under new owner Lionsgate and with veteran TV brand builder Diane Robina heading programming efforts, the network has much bigger aspirations.

"When I was growing up, TV Guide was my connection to the world of entertainment," says Ms. Robina, exec VP-programming and marketing. "My television insider was TV Guide, and that's where I want to get this brand back to." She views the brand's red, screen-shape logo as a television icon. "When you see that red Chiclet, you know exactly what it means."

Ms. Robina has been busy recrafting TV Guide Network as a destination for consumers who are passionate about the TV world and want the feeling of being entertainment insiders. She says it's a multifaceted process.

First, she is making the network a home for quality television, having acquired the rights to several critically acclaimed, cutting-edge series: "Ugly Betty," "Weeds" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." The TV Guide twist is to bring the viewer behind the scenes.

So when "CurbYour Enthusiasm" debuts on TV Guide Network in June, each episode will be followed by a seven-to-eight-minute panel discussion of the making of, and issues raised by, the episode—led by series regular and comedian Susie Essman. Panelists scheduled to appear include not only series creator Larry David but also TV stars such as Jerry Seinfeld and Jon Hamm, creatives such as Seth Green and Merrill Markoe and others, including media pundits, musicians and journalists.

Ms. Robina also is focused on acquiring movies "with star value, movies that fans love." TV Guide Network will continue to run its behind-the-scenes and red carpet coverage of major entertainment award shows and events.

Finally, Ms. Robina is harking back to the print version of TV Guide and its famous TV-based compilations and lists, which beginning in 1953 chronicled everything from the best TV shows ever to the greatest cartoon characters on TV. In February, Jay Leno hosted the network's "25 Biggest TV Blunders," an hourlong exploration featuring, of course, Mr. Leno's own short-lived move to prime time.

"We are going back to that old TV Guide brand attribute: an obsession with TV," she says. "In a world of over 100 TV channels, you have got to have that strong brand to connect to the customer."