Exec looking to build up Spike, VH1

Tom Freston loves all his kids, but the MTV Networks topper confesses to having some favorites — as well as a few problem children.

With Comedy Central now fully in the Viacom fold, Freston’s assertion that the overall state of Viacom’s cable group has “never been in a better place” was backed up last week when the conglom issued its first quarter earnings — and cable led the way, with operating income up 21%.

But while MTV and Nickelodeon continue to soar, Freston admits there’s work to be done on other parts of the empire.

“Our two biggest priorities are Spike (now known as TNN) and VH1,” he says. “We’re making some good progress, but we have to take these networks and move them into the ‘must-buy’ category (for advertisers).”

Here’s a report card on all of the major analog cable networks that fall under the MTV Networks banner:

MTV

The mothership remains the center of all things hip and cool — and a must-buy for any advertiser targeting teens and young adults (read: most studios). The second season of “The Osbournes” was a Nielsen disappointment, but chameleon-like cabler has already moved on with its next generation of buzzmaking reality skeins, including Ashton Kutcher-hosted “Punk’d” (already the net’s top show with teens.)

Grade: A

TNN (soon to be Spike TV)

Channel long in search of identity now caters strictly to young guys. “Blind Date” and “CSI” reruns haven’t done the ratings trick yet, but June relaunch hopes to fix that with wacky animated skeins and interstitial segs from men’s magazines. Still, the new name sounds like it should be applied to a digital cable network devoted to volleyball.

Grade: C-

Nickelodeon

The gateway drug for future TV addicts, Nick lures kiddies in early (via Nick Jr.) and keeps ‘em busy ’til they graduate to MTV. It dominates tots and tweens with a mix of animation phenoms (“SpongeBob SquarePants”) and laffer showcases for future teen idols (“Lizzie McGuire”), then gets their allowance at the multiplex with movie spinoffs and at the toy store.

Grade: A+

VH1

Still trying to redefine itself in the post- “Behind the Music” era, MTV’s little bro suffered huge ratings declines last year as boomers and their kids grew bored with endless variations on the rock stars-gone-bad theme. Numbers have started to bounce back since MTV programming whiz Brian Graden began doing double duty running both nets; there are high hopes for new reality skein “Born to Diva.”

Grade: C

Nick at Nite/TV Land

Two nets’ library of classic TV skeins grows larger as Viacom gets bigger. NAN has been getting younger by adding laffers from the 1980s, while both have been moving beyond repeats to incorporate more original programming (such as the TV Land Awards and an upcoming Bill Cosby-produced skein.) And post-9/11, viewers have been seeking out the comfort food both nets serve up.

Grade: B+

CMT: Country Music Television

It’s the “Touched by an Angel” of cable nets: Heartland viewers love it, but there’s little buzz around the net that’s all things Nashville. Has had some success lately wooing crossover auds by pairing country faves with more mainstream artists in a series of specials.

Grade: B-

College Television Network

A new acquisition to the MTV Networks group, net reaches about 8 million college kids in dorms and student unions. Too soon to say how it’ll fit into Viacom’s overall strategy.

Grade: Incomplete

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