Cable spins Web to catch guys

Exex use amateur clips online to find the next hot show for key demo

After years of the Internet and videogames siphoning young men from television, networks are employing the tactics and services of sites like YouTube to win them back.

With viral videos and user-generated content populating the Web, the new philosophy among TV execs is this: Let the audience dictate what’s hot.

For proof, look no further than the resurrection of “Saved by the Bell” on Adult Swim, the latenight counterpart of Cartoon Network, which is full of subversive toons.

On paper, “Saved by the Bell” seems an odd fit for a cable network ranked as the No. 1 draw for young men (outpacing competitors ESPN, TBS, MTV, FX). But since launching April 17, the Saturday morning kids fave from the ’80s has averaged 310,000 18- to 34-old men, a 35% increase over its current average.

Adult Swim’s chief exec Mike Lazzo says he can’t explain why the gamble is paying off.

“It must be those ’80s haircuts and clothes. I mean, how can you not watch?” he jokes. But his reason for putting it on the air is solid.

“‘The show is a huge hit on YouTube,” he says. “My own development guys watch the 7 a.m. play on TBS and told me it would be a great idea to put it on. I refused until I noticed how much traffic clips from the show get online.”

With the explosion of guy-oriented Web sites like YouTube, Break.com and Heavy.com — a mix of amateur video and clips ripped from other media — it’s no wonder that programming execs have begun treating the viral video portals as what Lazzo calls “development tools.”

“It’s got enormous piloting potential,” he says. He has already reached out to several from the online world for possible on-air collaborations.

The trend is significant because men in the 18-34 bracket are notoriously difficult to attract. Even guy-oriented shows like “The Office” and “My Name Is Earl” can’t crack this season’s top 10 shows in the demo. That’s why scrappy cablers are eagerly trying to tap into the even scrappier sensibilities of the online world.

What’s already working are shows that play to, and can be chopped up for, the online crowd: “South Park,” “Mind of Mencia,” “Hogan Knows Best” and improv comedy series “Nick Cannon’s Wild ‘N Out.”

MTV2 is also making noise with “The Andy Milonakis Show” and “Wonder Showzen,” both made up of funny bits that run between one and three minutes long.

“Guys are media nomads. They’re platform-agnostic,” says G4 president Neal Tiles, who is evolving the vidgame net into a broader-based space for young men. “This demo grew up in a multi-channel universe, so they’ve always had many choices. They’re used to consuming life in bite-sized chunks.”

G4 is readying several super-short shows that run minutes long for the network as well as for its non-linear plays. Tiles says it is the anarchic sensibility of the free-for-all Web sites that programmers are trying to target.

USA exec VP Jeff Wachtel is hoping his pilot for “eBaum’s World” — a clip show based on the guy’s Web site of the same name — is the kind of show that plays into that chaos. The challenge, he says, is to find a structure that works for an audience that resists it.

“It’s a cross between ‘Wayne’s World’ and ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000,’ so it’s got an element of short-attention-span theater,” says Wachtel.

Finding a series to pair with wrestling is “a big priority” for USA. Episodes of WWE attract an average 5 million viewers, a quarter of which are young men.

Says Lazzo: “There isn’t a day that goes by where I’m not accosted by emails from my development guys with links from YouTube that say, ‘Hey, we should try this.’ Or ‘Let’s contact the guys who made this.’ ”

Even pay cabler HBO locked up the services of online comedian Dane Cook in the hopes of luring younger audiences and men .

“Targeting demos is less important to us than to ad-supported networks,” says HBO entertainment topper Carolyn Strauss. “But Cook is white-hot with college kids, who are our future subscribers. Getting to them is very important.”

The one cloud hanging over the phenom is the issue of copyright. But the promotional benefits thus far seem to outweigh the costs.

While NBC has been quick to shut down the “SNL” clips that circulate online, VH1 actually leaked highlights from its dating show “Flavor of Love” to the viral vid sites. The cabler wound up with an aud of 6 million for the series finale.

But Lazzo says it is a double-edged sword. He knows viewers can find the majority of Adult Swim’s shows content online in full length.

“I love and hate it,” he says. “It’s also nerve-wracking to see all your shows available on the sites. But I admit it, I’m on those sites every single day.”