Gaspin says there's no plan to dump series on cabler

If you want to drive NBC crazy, accuse it of buying Bravo to pitchfork a sleepy, small upscale niche channel into another big, bow-wow general-entertainment cable network.

After all, NBC is the only broadcast network that doesn’t own an entertainment-oriented cable channel set up to serve, at least in part, as a receptacle for reruns of broadcast shows and the purchase of movies, scripted series and reality shows.

CBS, for example, bought the first 15 James Bond movies from MGM to showcase on CBS’s sister network TNN.

ABC “repurposes” (a fancy verb for repeats) its primetime sitcoms “Life with Bonnie” and “Less Than Perfect” on the ABC Family channel every week.

The Fox Network has in the past funnelled as many as two extra runs each week of its action series “24” to its cable sibling FX.

But Jeff Gaspin, the exec VP of NBC who has taken over the day-to-day operation of Bravo, says he has no plans to dump truckloads of NBC series on the network or to pour tens of millions of extra dollars into Bravo’s programming kitty to commission scripted series and movies.

For the foreseeable future, Gaspin says he expects to work within Bravo’s pre-NBC programming budget projected at $78 million during 2003 for both original and purchased programs.

That figure puts Bravo’s expenses below those of such program services as Food Network, E! Entertainment TV, HGTV and Cartoon Network.

Tim Brooks, senior VP of research for Lifetime, says Gaspin is wisely resisting the siren song that would induce him to transform Bravo into a general-entertainment network.

From painful experience as head of research for the USA Network in the 1990s, Brooks says he knows how hard it is to successfully brand a channel that schedules a wide range of programming, such as movies, scripted series, sports events and reality shows.

Bravo, Brooks says, has carved out a niche made up of specialized programming appealing heavily to a class of viewers that Madison Avenue lusts after: Upscale, well-educated men and women.

The biggest problem faced by Bravo is that it’s not reaching enough of those human paragons.

Bravo’s average primetime rating fell to a 0.3 rating in 2002, sliding it to 38th place over all out of 49 ad-supported networks reported by Nielsen. That’s a drop of 25% from Bravo’s 0.4 rating in 2001.

But the news isn’t all bad: Bravo added 5.5-million new households in the last year, swelling its total to 69.5 million. The extra eyeballs allowed Bravo to chalk up double-digit increases last year in two key demo categories: adults 18 to 49 and adults 25 to 54.

Gaspin is aware, however, that he has to get more people watching the network.

One new weapon in Bravo’s arsenal, he says, “is the promotional power of NBC and its owned TV stations.” Under Gaspin’s cheerleading, NBC’s staff marketers will be able to run spots for particular Bravo programs both on NBC and on each of its TV stations.

Since NBC is the highest-rated broadcast network, reaching more upscale viewers on average than its competitors do, these spots could go a long way to making people aware that, for example, Bravo frequently runs movies like “The Big Chill” and “Excaliber,” plus reruns of the HBO series “The Larry Sanders Show” every night.

As befits a sophisticated network with a cachet burnished by lots of performing-arts shows, Bravo runs the profane “Sanders” show, starring Garry Shandling, with very little scissoring.

And, through a happy accident, Bravo had pre-bought reruns of the hit NBC series “The West Wing” a year ago for delivery in the fall of 2003.

Gaspin says he can’t wait to engineer an NBC/Bravo cross-promotional campaign that could bestow audience benefits on both the original Wednesday-night episodes of “West Wing” on NBC and the nightly repeats on Bravo.

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