Spike TV: What’s in a name?

TNN is the latest cabler to undergo an extreme makeover

Viacom is looking for a ratings Spike.

After years of flirting with various amorphous strategies for attracting a broad audience, the cabler formerly known as TNN has decided to embrace its inner male, injecting testosterone straight into the lineup.

The branding of newly named Spike TV will be officially unveiled this week with the slogan “the first network for men.”

Spike is the most recent in a line of restless cable networks that have tossed out their old moniker in favor of a focus-group-tested new one.

Odyssey Channel has become Hallmark Channel. Romance Classics begat WE: Women’s Entertainment. Speedvision shrank to Speed.

“If a name or a format isn’t working, or is sowing confusion among the viewers, the cable network has to make a change,” says Lynne Buening , a cable-programming consultant. “In the long run, it’s worth the angst and the huge cost that comes with engineering such an upheaval.”

Robert Thompson, the Syracuse U. professor who’s head of its Center for the Study of Popular TV, says the most agonizing part of the decision comes with “assessing how much cultural equity is built up in a name.”

When News Corp. bought the Family Channel from Pat Robertson, it kept the Family while adding Fox to the name for pride of ownership, Thompson says. And when ABC bought Fox Family from News Corp., the only word removed was Fox: The channel became ABC Family.

Walt Disney and Hearst, the owners of Lifetime, would never even think of changing its name, he says, because the network has worked its way into the cultural bloodstream with its catchphrase “television for women.”

But Thompson remembers the original Lifetime of the mid-’80s with a completely different mix of programming, a good portion of it centered on health and medicine (hence the name Lifetime).

Shifting to the present, the initials TNN had to go, says Buening, because many viewers still remembered it as The Nashville Network, despite the fact that Viacom had spent the last few years jettisoning country shows for male-oriented fare like World Wrestling Entertainment weekly extravaganzas and umpteen reruns of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

Albie Hecht , president of Spike TV, says he’s heard all the snide remarks about how there already exist multiple cable networks for men, led by ESPN and all of its clones, and Comedy Central.

His answer: “All of our surveys show that men spend only 13% of their time watching sports and only 8% watching comedy shows.”

“Spike wants to be the home base for men in a variety of categories, including lifestyle, travel, men’s health and personal finance,” he continues. “The sports we do will embrace what I call sports entertainment,” such as the made-up “Slamball” contests, which feature athletic young men crashing into each other on a trampoline court, with the goal of dunking a basketball to rack up points.

For scripted entertainment, Spike TV has exclusive cable rights to the reruns of “CSI,” all of the “Star Trek” TV series through “Voyager,” and multiple runs of the bulk of the movies in the MGM/UA James Bond library.

And on June 26, Spike kicks off three new weekly animated primetime series for adults: “Striperella” (voiced by Pamela Anderson), “Gary the Rat” (Kelsey Grammer’s voice work) and “Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon.”

The transformation of Odyssey Channel into Hallmark Channel in August 2001 required some heavy sales pitches from David Evans, president and CEO of Crown Media, which owns and operates the network.

Hallmark is ultra-protective of its squeaky-clean brand, he says. Hallmark was skittish about the name change even though it already owned a 22% stake in Odyssey Channel and even though Odyssey was scheduling programs from Hallmark’s library of movies produced by Robert Halmi.

Evans had to guarantee Hallmark that the network’s programming would stay within the bounds of acceptable family entertainment.

The name change turned out to be a wise move, leading to speedy growth in subscriber numbers (from 32.6 million to 51.8 million since August 2001) and Nielsen ratings (up 21% in total viewers in primetime for the first quarter of 2003).

“People had no idea what Odyssey was all about, whereas everybody recognizes the name Hallmark,” says Buening.

Before it became WE, the problem for Romance Classics, she says, is that the name conjured up the kind of drugstore paperbacks featuring women clothed in 19th-century garb about to be willingly ravished by a dashing retro hunk.

As Buening puts it: “You expected all the shows to be introduced by Fabio.”

Marty von Ruden, exec VP and general manager of WE, says, “In an era of ‘Sex & the City,’ we knew ‘Romance Classics’ was as about as irrelevant to women as you could get.”

He says Rainbow Media, WE’s parent, considered at least 400 names over a number of months, raging from marigold and iris to oasis and bliss, narrowing the choice to three finalists: W, American Woman and WE. The decision came down in December 2000.

But some name changes are blissfully uncomplicated.

Erik Arneson , head of PR for Speed Channel, says the on-air bug at the bottom of the screen spelling out Speedvision was simply taking up too much space.