‘Star’ player helping TNN in trek up

Ratings payback for top dollar rights to series

NEW YORK — The National Network (TNN) stunned observers throughout the cable industry last year when it ponied up a stratospheric $365 million to Paramount for exclusive rights to the reruns of three “Star Trek” series.

If the eye-opening Nielsen measurements for the first three days of October — the start of a weeklong marathon that’s introducing “Star Trek: The Next Generation” to TNN viewers — are any indication, the $365 million pricetag may soon start looking like a bargain.

On Oct. 2 and 3, the wall-to-wall “Next Generation” episodes harvested the best all-day Tuesday and Wednesday Nielsen ratings in TNN’s history, including the best adults-18-to-49 numbers for the two days.

Diane Robina, executive VP and general manager of TNT, says the marathon has met her goal of building momentum for “Next Generation” as it settles in to its twice-a-day schedule at 8 and 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, starting Oct. 8.

That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that TNN mostly came a cropper when it premiered five unscripted 8-p.m. series — all relatively inexpensive — spread over five nights during the week beginning Aug. 20.

The only one of the five that made an impact in the Nielsens was Monday’s “Robot Wars: Extreme Warriors,” whose radio-controlled demolition machines proved a compatible lead-in to the World Wrestling Federation’s high-rated weekly two-hour “Raw” slamfest on TNN.

Now that “Next Generation” has taken over the Monday-at-8 timeslot, TNN has moved “Robot Wars” to 9 p.m. Saturday.

Another of TNN’s new weekly series, “Ultimate Revenge,” a tongue-in-cheek fantasy-fulfillment half-hour, averaged only a 0.3 rating for its first 10 telecasts Tuesdays and Fridays.

On the plus side, however, more than two-thirds of the audience fell into the adults-18-to-49 category. TNN is seizing on the demo rating of “Revenge” because that’s the audience the network is targeting with the bulk of its programming.

Robina says she’s not giving up on the three others — “Small Shots,” “Lifegame” and “Pop Across America” — even though they all wound up with a minuscule 0.1 Nielsen household rating average for their first six cablecasts.

This average is so low that even the high quotient of adults 18 to 49 within the rating may not be enough to secure a long-term future for the trio. TNN has not slotted “Lifegame” and “Pop Across America” on its current fall schedule.

The network has begun a massive consumer ad campaign worth $25 million, ballyhooing the “new” TNN as it shucks off a 17-year history as the leading country-music/rural-lifestyle network in the U.S.

The middle initial of the old network stood for Nashville, not National, and the average age of its audience hovered in the low 50s. During the third quarter of 2001, TNN boasts that it reduced the median age of its viewers from 53 to 36, an unusually dramatic turnaround.

The network’s inhouse campaign highlights four series as the linchpins of the refurbished TNN, three of them reruns — “The Next Generation,” “MadTV” and Pamela Anderson’s “V.I.P.” The fourth is “WWF Raw,” which TNN picked up last year by outbidding the USA network for the cable rights.

With the exception of Monday wrestling, two-hour primetime movies, and the original hour “Fame for 15” (Monday at 8, starting Oct. 22), TNN schedules wall-to-wall reruns from 9 a.m. until midnight Monday through Friday.

The table setters for “Next Generation” at 8 are “Baywatch” at 6 and “Mad TV” at 7, all of which “should help us to youth-ify the network,” says Robina. The network takes title to “V.I.P.” in September 2002.

Earlier this year, TNN crawled out on a limb to buy repeats of one of the hottest shows on broadcast primetime, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” coughing up $1.6 million an episode for the privilege — the highest price for a rerun series in the history of cable TV. While continuing as a firstrun series on CBS, “CSI” will go once a week on TNN starting in fall 2002 and at least five times a week in September 2004.

“We’re a work in progress,” Robina says. The 1.0 primetime rating TNN averaged for the third quarter still puts it well behind the general-entertainment networks it seeks to rival: USA, TBS and TNT.

But Howard Nass, senior VP and corporate director of broadcast TV for Initiative Media, says that TNN has a running start because it can draw on the resources of the MTV Networks group, a division of Viacom.

Spending big bucks on programming and promotion is still the best way for a network to get more people to watch its shows, Nass says, “and you don’t get pockets that go much deeper than Viacom’s.”

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