Borrowing brands

Basic cable hopes rivals' prestige shows rub off

HBO’s “The Sopranos” will be unleashed on the basic-cable universe next January, but don’t expect new home A&E to transform into the mob drama network.

Cabler chief Bob DeBitetto has seen what happens to networks that come to rely too much on any one show. Bravo and TLC went crashing after key franchises “Queer Eye” and “Trading Spaces” tired, while Discovery’s dependence on “tattoo TV” shows like “American Chopper” sent it spiraling.

It’s an easy trap to fall into and one that plagues the many channels that have tried out every version of “The Osbournes” in a vain attempt to get younger and go broad.

To set themselves apart, programmers have resorted to image management.

Execs now are bolstering flailing brands by cozying up to other cablers that have made a name for themselves.

Bravo plucked HBO’s “Six Feet Under” while Spike TV booked FX’s “The Shield.” Before that, TBS banked its future as a comedy network by coughing up $42 million for the “Sex and the City” library while A&E spent a record $200 million to be the exclusive home of “Sopranos.”

Whether the prestige of these shows rubs off on their second homes is still up for debate.

“Sex” ranks as TBS’ No. 1 show in 18-49, outpacing reruns of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Friends” and “Seinfeld.” Moreover, advertisers jumped at the chance to buy into a show that had previously been closed off to them. But the series has yet to help grow TBS a hit of its own.

The challenge for cablers leveraging highbrow series is to ratchet up its own programming brands, primarily by finding complementary originals.

TBS now is mining sitcoms of its own to better pair with “Sex,” a wiser gameplan than the knockoff reality shows it had previously produced. And while A&E may have put itself back on the map with Red State reality hit “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” net will use “Sopranos” to get back into more serious fare.

“‘Sopranos’ will be a defining series for us, but it won’t be alone on the network,” DeBitetto says. “It’ll help drive our brand over the next 12 months. What we’re really hoping it does is launch our own set of dramas.”

HBO can afford to let its powerhouse shows find second homes; its reputation is firmly entrenched in current culture. For a cable network like FX, letting Spike rerun “The Shield” is trickier.

Until now, Viacom men’s network Spike has best been known for geeky “Star Trek” reruns, wrestling and “CSI.” To get more macho, Spike got its hands on “The Shield,” one of the most testosterone-driven cop shows on-air.

But the series still runs on FX, which established its brand with the harrowing drama. Series singlehandedly sets the tone for the rest of the network’s shows: all honest, gritty, contempo looks at lives in all their moral ambiguities.

Spike prexy Doug Herzog says “The Shield” is still smart programming for where his net is heading. “We felt like we could probably do the same kind of thing, but we’re not trying to be FX,” he says. “I’m a huge fan of their programming. But we’re using ‘Shield’ as just one piece of a portfolio. For one thing, our series are not going to be as dark.”

Spike’s repeats of “The Shield” have drawn an average of 790,000 viewers since its March launch. That’s down 40% from Spike’s first-quarter primetime average.

Bravo senior VP Frances Berwick explains that ratings aren’t the only end-game.

“We’re also giving advertisers the first opportunity to be a part of ‘Six Feet Under,’ and the initial response so far has exceeded our expectations,” she says. “This show will also be a draw with our affluent viewers. Even though it has only been seen by a small number of people on HBO, there’s tremendous awareness for the show. HBO did a brilliant job marketing it.”

One cable network topper says success by association is a moot point. “Most viewers don’t associate shows with their networks. With HBO, you’re buying shows that most of the country has heard about but hasn’t seen. With any other cable network, these shows pulling in limited numbers and audiences often don’t even realize which network they’re on.”

Still, unless you’re Nickelodeon or MTV, most cablers aim to be a destination channel. “It’s true that people make appointments for shows. I’m not watching all of Fox on Monday, but I have an appointment with ’24,'” Berwick says. But with competition emerging from new platforms, “It is increasingly critical to be one of viewers’ top 15 places, the ones they check out first.”

The fates of A&E’s “Sopranos” and Bravo’s “Six Feet” remain to be seen. But there’s evidence that brands can be built on the backs of others.

ABC Family is continuing the legacy of former teen central the WB — a broadcaster that carved itself a niche as cablers do — running shows hatched in the Frog’s heyday like “Gilmore Girls,” “Everwood,” and “Smallville.” Dramas that helped distinguish the WB now help define ABC Family as the new home for youth-oriented fare like originals “Wildfire” and “Beautiful People.”

Laura Caraccioli-Davis, senior VP of media buyer Starcom, says as an ad exec, “It’s always hard to picture these super-targeted shows working in any aftermarket.” But ABC Family made it work. “Those shows gave them their identity.”