Brands’ grand stand

Cablers show off facelifts to Madison Ave.

Before broadcasters get their weeklong party on with Madison Avenue next week, cablers are busily courting ad buyers, touting new shows, multiplatform packages, outlining aggressive digital strategies and launching Web sites with broadband video capabilities.

But several cable networks are doing much more than that: they’re undergoing brand makeovers big and small — a trend that increasingly is part of keeping up in the cable world.

Among the louder news deployed during cable’s upfront selling season:

  • Forget the traditional 18-49 and 25-54 demos: Discovery’s TLC is targeting a narrow 28-42 category demographic in conjunction with its new “live and learn” doctrine, while TV Land is selling advertisers on the importance of the graying baby boomer set.

  • Straying off the beaten path: Cartoon Network is venturing into non-cartoon fare. Lifetime is trying out some half-hours and will bow improv office comedy “Lovespring International” this summer. Movie network AMC is getting into original drama. And TBS, in a logical move, is finally ditching reality shows and adding an original sitcom, “My Boys,” to its lineup of hit laffers.

  • Say hello to the new me: Spike TV unveiled a more macho logo to coincide with its new action-oriented programming, which kicks off this summer with its premiere drama “Blade.” WE: Women’s Entertainment has morphed into WE TV (new tag “WE Have More Fun”). And OLN (formerly Outdoor Life Network) made its transition to sports-based net official when it adopted the new name Versus.

  • We’ve got the big guns: A&E paraded “The Sopranos” before its crowd, even though episodes don’t join the schedule until January, while Discovery Channel trotted out Ted Koppel, who signed a massive multiyear deal with the network earlier this year.

Many networks have been veering “off brand” for the past few years, a result of pressure to grab younger, more lucrative eyeballs and the proliferation of screens. More than ever, cable networks execs are changing the game plan on an almost annual basis to grab their share of the ad dollar pie.

Brad Adgate, senior VP of Horizon Media, says, sticking to what works isn’t enough anymore.

“In many cases, it leads to erosion,” he says, pointing to the copycat versions of “Trading Spaces” that precipitated both the series’ and TLC’s ratings slides. “Because there is so much competition, cable networks have to change up all the time.”

Even a hit show has a shelf life, as seen with Bravo’s “Queer Eye.” The net has followed it with fashion competition “Project Runway.”

But shifting directions can prove difficult for a cable network’s marketing team, which is forced to help signal new messages to buyers already wading through clutter.

Says one buyer: “Some of these cable networks are like moving targets. One day they’re focused on highbrow, then a mass audience, then it’s back to highbrow. That said, I like to see some risk-taking. New is always better than standing still.”

Upside for cablers is that the moves, risky or otherwise, are grabbing Madison Avenue’s attention — and attention, executives agree, is all you can hope for in a crowded marketplace.

And the reinvention cycle isn’t slowing down any time soon, with competition from the Internet — players like YouTube and Google Video –on the rise.

Some have more successfully evolved with the changing environment.

Says Adgate: “Take ESPN. Who would have guessed they’d be doing dramas and movies? Or look at A&E. They’re not doing the artsy stuff they were five years ago, but it’s working for them.”

That is, until the next wave of change hits.

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