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Spike v. Spike: macho and myopia

Guest column

Poor Spike Lee.

Once upon a time, Lee represented the cutting edge of pop culture. Putting Public Enemy on a film soundtrack was cool in 1989. And he was ahead of the curve in 1991, casting “Jungle Fever” with future stars like Halle Berry and Queen Latifah.

Spike, what happened?

Lee may be convinced that he still owns the rights to the name Spike. And perhaps he does — among his well-to-do friends and those waking up from a decade-long coma.

But the helmer’s recent lawsuit to prevent Viacom from morphing its testosterone cabler TNN into “Spike TV” — claiming that Viacom stole Lee’s irreverent persona to sell the network — actually reminds us that, as far as Spikes go, Lee’s time is up.

Never mind that “Spike” is kind of a goofy name to rebrand a network, unless you’re entering the digital cable tier with an all-volleyball format. (That’s a debate for another column, perhaps one in which we’ll also question how any channel that airs repeats of “The Bachelor” can have “Family” in its name, or why TLC pretends its tag isn’t actually “The Learning Channel.”)

If anyone’s gonna be pissed, there’s a new generation of Spikes that have a better case against Viacom and MTV Networks than the “Do The Right Thing” auteur.

Ask anyone under 30.

Beer-guzzling, “Jackass” loving dudes and their hottie girlfriends — Spike TV’s target audience — are paying more attention to Spike Jonze’s flicks than anything coming from Lee. Jonze’s last two pics, “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich,” blew away Lee’s “25th Hour” and “Bamboozled” in terms of B.O. and buzz.

Young adults are also more familiar with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” Spike, played by James Marsters, and could probably recite dialogue from that character before they could name any of Lee’s five last movies.

Fans of Lee aren’t going to watch “Stripperella.” Fans of “Buffy’s” sarcastic vampire and Jonze’s hip movies will. Somebody hand Spike Jonze the phone number for Johnnie Cochran.

And hell, anyone 10 and under grew up with Spike the dog in “The Rugrats” and could even identify Snoopy’s brother Spike before figuring out who that older guy with the glasses and goatee is.

MTV, as a matter of fact, should probably be worried that its new net might be associated with Lee. MTV’s looking for a crowd that will smoke a joint — not ones that will watch A Spike Lee Joint.

But here’s the ultimate insult to anyone who thinks that Lee is still on the cusp of what’s now: Type the word “Spike” into Google, and the director doesn’t show up until the sixth page.

That’s right–sites revolving around Marsters’ “Buffy” character and helmer Jonze appear first. Hell, a webpage for “Spike’s Naked Planet”–which promises “an up-to-date list of nudist groups for men worldwide”–shows up before any Web site devoted to Lee.

If Lee is truly the nation’s preeminent Spike, then no one told the Tidewater Volleyball Association, which posted its Web site at Spike.net.

Then there’s Spike Magazine–“the official site of the Department of Journalism at the University of Illinois”–as well as the Gold Spike Hotel and Casino in Downtown Las Vegas, Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation, Spike recording studio in Manhattan and Chicago-based WGN-AM morning guy Spike O’Dell.

All of ’em show up on Google before Lee gets his due.

O’Dell says his parents named him Spike two months before he was born in 1953 — four years before Lee came into the world.

“I got half a notion that if he’s going to get any money (from Viacom), I wouldn’t mind filing a class action lawsuit on behalf of every other Spike to get a chunk of it,” O’Dell says. “Imagine the arrogance of this guy.”

Even a leather bar in West Hollywood has as much claim to the name as Lee. Bill McKelvie’s bar Spike has been open on Santa Monica Boulevard for 37 years.

“I don’t see where anybody could have a patent on the Spike name,” McKelvie says. “If anybody, we’ve probably been in business longer than any other Spike out there.”

Lee’s insistance that he represents all things Spike was actually kind of amusing until Monday, when Viacom was forced to delay plans to launch Spike TV.

But of course, when all is said and done, MTV Networks probably still owes Lee a nice check. No marketing consultant in the world could have gotten the kind of press that Lee generated for the Spike TV bow.

Michael Schneider is television editor of Variety and Daily Variety.

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