Themes, marketing programs connect with auds

USA Network may have always had interesting characters on its primetime lineup, but now it’s touting something much more vital to its success — the campaign “Characters Welcome.”

The difference is immense. Before branding itself as the home of “Characters Welcome,” the general entertainment cabler was never able to connect in a cohesive way with viewers. Net had a potpourri of programming that appealed to disparate groups without a central theme.

That all changed when Bonnie Hammer came aboard as prexy in 2004 and put a huge emphasis on branding. The new slogan has helped unify the programming on USA and turned the net into a ratings giant.

“We realized there was a huge disconnect of the programs on the channel, and the channel as a whole,” Hammer explains. “We never had a brand that wrapped itself around everything.”

USA was the No. 1-rated basic cable channel in 2006 and has started out the new year just as impressively. It’s first in the highly regarded 18-49 demo as well as 25-54 and total primetime viewers.

Net can thank series such as “Monk,” “Psych” and even World Wrestling Entertainment’s “Raw” package.

“We believe characters fuel everything in terms of content,” Hammer says. “We have super-size characters on WWE and an obsessive-compulsive detective. All our programming is based on strong characters and the connection the audience has with them.”

USA’s success story proves that while branding is not a new phenomenon, it’s virtually as important as the quality of programming in terms of getting audiences to give new shows an initial viewing.

The “Characters Welcome” slogan will be a huge part of the marketing push for the net’s latest drama, “Starter Wife,” based on the novel by Gigi Levangie Grazer, and starring Debra Messing as the ex-wife of a Hollywood mogul adapting to a new life.

“Today, cable networks really have no choice but to brand,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. “The landscape is so fractionalized that it’s now more important than ever to brand.

“While it’s very easy for networks like ESPN and Nickelodeon to brand themselves, it’s harder for places like USA, which had more general entertainment programming. They’ve really identified themselves as a niche.”

FX was another basic cabler that seemed to have a hard time defining itself until it launched “The Shield” back in 2002. But with the Michael Chiklis cop series doing well with critics and on the kudos circuit — Chiklis was a surprise Emmy and Golden Globe winner for best actor in a drama in 2002 — the net realized that being the home of edgy originals would be a gateway to draw auds.

Previous to “The Shield,” FX — like most networks that haven’t ramped up their original programming slate — had a hard time forming an identity. And now, according to prexy John Landgraf, the cabler is contemplating a completely new branding campaign to lure even more viewers.

“We think a lot about our brand,” Landgraf says on the eve on the network’s premiere of “The Riches,” starring Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver. He defines FX’s mantra as “where quality meets edge — singular high-quality narrative storytelling that meets things you haven’t seen before.”

Unlike USA, where Hammer emphasizes the need to stay away from dark themes, FX relishes it and emphasizes that the net is definitely not for all ages.

“We’re not about under 18 and only for adults,” Landgraf says. “That’s why our series always debut at 10 p.m.”

Following “The Riches,” FX is prepping an untitled legal drama starring Glenn Close, who had a memorable turn on “The Shield.”

Both Landgraf and Hammer agree that not only are the original series a way to brand, but so are the off-net shows that make up a large part of the schedule. USA’s repurposing of Fox hit “House” fits into the brand — Hugh Laurie’s character is unique — and FX is happy with CBS hit comedy “Two and a Half Men,” with its adult-oriented scripts.

Over at Turner nets TNT and TBS, their respective branding campaigns have paid off in a big way as well.

TNT’s “We Know Drama” brand extends throughout the day. Off-net skeins such as “The X-Files,” “ER” and “Without a Trace” have helped bring in viewers, while “The Closer” is a primetime hit and ready to launch season three.

“We bought shows like ‘Law & Order,’ ‘NYPD Blue’ and ‘Without a Trace’ because they have a consistent quality and tone,” says TNT/TBS programming topper Michael Wright. “They’re for people who want to be entertained without watching crap.”

In keeping with the brand, Wright and his team figured “The Closer” was a perfect extension and complement of “Law & Order” — and he was right.

Before the series got a greenlight, he had to persuade those who needed to be onboard for the project to be a go — specifically agents and studios — that the network brand would be a huge asset in turning the skein into a success.

With that winning strategy now well established, TNT’s latest dramas to launch — Treat Williams starrer “Heartland” and Holly Hunter’s “Saving Grace” — have the luxury of starting up on a net that’s ready to extend the brand, rather than establishing one.

And on the comedy side, Turner net TBS found out that continually airing off-net champs such as “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Friends” and “Seinfeld” has helped pave the way for newcomer “The Bill Engvall Show” and “My Boys,” which will begin a second season this summer.

FULL VPLUS REPORT:

TV producers praise patience: A look at broadcast networks, cable

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