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Cable networks reshape image

Brand reinvention hopes to draw fresh viewers

Cable is going under the knife.

An unusually large number of cablers opted for makeovers this spring, unveiling a flurry of new identities, logos, taglines and mission statements during the upfront presentations.

By the end of those cable meetings, advertisers and media buyers probably wished they’d earned a dollar — or a stiff drink — every time they heard a network suit utter the phrase “brand reinvention.”

But cable execs say the new identities were necessary to shed outdated notions of what their channels offer.

In the case of A&E, the network is still identified by some as an arts channel, rather than “Intervention” or “Gene Simmons Family Jewels.” For Lifetime, it’s part of a move away from its image as an older-skewing home of TV movies to the younger spot for original drama. The channel has been evolving with more younger originals like “Army Wives” replacing reruns of “Golden Girls.”

Discovery Channel, meanwhile, wanted to put more focus on people, and shift any lingering notions of an aging brand.

“It’s inherent in the cable business that you’ve got to grab your viewers however you can, and try to stand out,” says Dan Bragg, VP of creative at Discovery. “You’ve got to show people you’re not the same old thing anymore.”

Network makeovers can be spurred by shifts in programming philosophy, like A&E, or by a management change — witness the overhaul of Discovery Communications’ outlets following the arrival of chief David Zaslav.

Beyond the Discovery Channel, TLC is undergoing a top-to-bottom makeover by new topper Angela Shapiro-Mathes, who’s aiming to make the channel more of a mainstream entertainment destination.

Also at Discovery, nets like Planet Green and Investigation Discovery — as well as the upcoming Oprah Winfrey outlet — have been completely transformed.

“No one can deny the power that Zaslav has had since he stepped in these doors,” Bragg says. “Moving the brands forward, while honoring their heritage, has been important. He’s saying we’re a media company, not a cable network company anymore. And we need to present ourselves in a much more current and updated mode.”

Image makeovers can vary from the extreme to the cosmetic. Last year, Court TV morphed into the more reality-oriented TruTV. FX, on the other hand, tweaked its logo and added the tagline “There is no box,” but didn’t mess with its programming philosophy.

Then there’s A&E, which didn’t change overnight, but instead has been shifting its brand for several years now. With that programming evolution pretty much complete, the channel’s bosses felt it was time to update its image. (Sister History Channel, now known just as “History,” also underwent a makeover).

“This is the first time in 25 years that the network has made a departure of this kind,” says A&E exec VP/general manager Bob DiBitetto. “We don’t expect to do it again for another 25 years. It’s a milestone, really declaring a significant repositioning of what we’re all about.”

DiBitetto says the channel has been working on its image once-over for more than a year.

“We did some pretty comprehensive research, and did all the things you need to do to understand your audience,” he says.

Although the channel had dropped the tagline “The Art of Entertainment” some time ago, DiBitetto found that old notions die hard: Focus groups still believed, for example, that the channel ran “Biography” — a one-time signature show that had been off the channel for years.

Ultimately, the channel added the tagline “Real Life. Drama.” to the mix, and gave its logo a contemporary redesign, but kept the name — which execs found still evoked positive notions of “quality” among auds.

Over at Lifetime, marketing chiefs Bob Bibb and Lew Goldstein began reshaping the cabler’s look and brand as soon as they arrived last summer. Research showed that the brand was not broken, Goldstein says.

“People had all these positive feelings about Lifetime, but just said they didn’t watch (the network) now. They needed an excuse to watch again.”

The duo began working on a new look for the net, one that would be much more positive and casual, Bibb says. Lifetime’s very corporate-looking logo gave way to a softer image that looked as if someone had handwritten the network’s name.

As for a tagline, Lifetime retired its old “Television for Women” moniker a few years ago, and hasn’t replaced it with anything else.

“They’re for Madison Avenue and the Hollywood community,” Lifetime’s Bibb says. “It’s superficial gift wrapping that says ‘we’re different.’ We never found taglines to be a great help to a network.”

Instead, Bibb and Goldstein decided to buy a plane. Dubbed the Flying Tigress, the jet is meant to be a sort of mobile ambassador for the Lifetime brand.

“It’s a fun way of touching America and bringing what Lifetime is all about to people,” Goldstein says.

Execs have also strived to bring personality to the Lifetime brand, which previously offered “a homogenous look,” Bibb says.

Lifetime’s makeover was spurred by new management — including the arrival of CEO Andrea Wong, who together with entertainment prexy Susanne Daniels, has been on a mission to reduce the network’s age.

Across town at Oxygen, the redo was prompted by an entire ownership change. Newly tapped Oxygen general manager Jason Klarman has overseen a major reworking of the femme cabler’s brand over the past six months. The net’s purchase by NBC Universal no doubt spurred the shift, but Klarman says it wasn’t difficult defining a new identity for the cabler.

“When I got here, what I quickly realized is that there were already lots of hit shows here,” he says. “What we set out to do was figure out what these shows had in common. We had to move from hit shows to a hit brand.”

After poring over reams of research, Klarman and his team realized Oxygen already had a strongly defined audience of young women who wanted programming that matched their independent-minded, anything-goes attitudes. Net dubbed its core audience “Generation O” and decided that they were women who liked to live “Life Out Loud,” as Oxygen’s new tagline puts it.

“Women were already connected to the network,” Klarman says. “We just called it out.”

Klarman believes cablers, and all TV networks, need strong brand identities more than ever.

“The business itself is undergoing a very seismic shift, in terms of technology and the consumer’s ability to chose the when and where of what they watch,” he says. “We have to create these brand filters to help them decide the what and when.”

Klarman says the internal benefits of a strong brand are nearly as important as the external payoffs. “As you chart the future, you need a compass,” he says. “And the future begins with a clear and definitive brand.”

Klarman is a strong believer in the power of taglines — not surprising given his involvement in launching Fox News (“We report, You Decide.”) and Bravo (“Watch What Happens”).

“What taglines do is give people a shorthand for what the brand proposition is,” he says. “You can’t spend millions marketing every show. But you can start building an expectation with viewers of what they’re going to get.”

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