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Esquire Network Seems Out of Style on TV Scene

NBCU’s effort to leverage the mag’s brand is a mismatch with cabler’s target demo of young men

The manliest thing about NBCU’s new guy-focused Esquire channel may be the attempt to launch it.

A cable channel joining forces with a magazine whose heyday extends beyond the era of “Mad Men?” And launching with a two-hour special in the middle of the fall season premiere frenzy by celebrating that title’s 80 years? (A far cry from when MTV threw up a middle finger at the music biz by debuting with a play of “Video Killed the Radio Star.”)

Now that takes testosterone.

Yes, you can color me skeptical. I mean no disrespect to Esquire, mind you — I’m a loyal subscriber — but I cannot figure out why the nation’s big entertainment congloms continue to launch machismo-tinged TV networks when, one can argue, men already have one. It’s called ESPN.

NBCUniversal is preparing to shut down its G4 cabler, inherited through Comcast’s acquisition of the Peacock, and in its place start a network using Hearst’s Esquire magazine as a “filter,” as Esquire net g.m. Adam Stotsky described it. Clearly, NBCU must feel it can make more hay off fashion-conscious, literary-minded, bourbon-swilling bikini-shot aficionados than it can from tech geeks, comicbook nerds and fans of “Cops” reruns.

Indeed, NBCU research suggested the G4 audience was an ephemeral one, devoted to gadgets and geekery but ready to move on from it in a flash. The Esquire audience still likes that stuff, but has the maturity (and income) to embrace more — and could be more palatable to advertisers seeking “a slightly more upscale, affluent, urban-dwelling guy,” Stotsky said.

Yet the Esquire network path isn’t the surest one. Other dude-TV entries, while sustainable, aren’t necessarily setting the world on fire. Viacom’s Spike has been around for some time, and is, as Variety’s AJ Marechal recently reported, looking to create an audience that is more gender balanced. Discovery’s Velocity, launched in 2011, is still an infant, albeit one that seems to like cars and sports.

You can’t dismiss the thinking behind this venture. NBCU already owns a passel of female-focused cablers: Bravo, Oxygen, Style. Its Syfy likely attracts similar folk as G4. So you put Esquire under the aegis of legendary programmer Bonnie Hammer and Stotsky, a former ad man who climbed aboard Syfy and promoted it in its Battlestar Galactica heyday, mix in deep-pocketed advertisers — Procter & Gamble’s Old Spice and Unilever’s Axe among them — who are spending more time trying to lure men, and see what shakes out.

Success, I’d argue, hinges on what Esquire means to the public at large. As David Granger, the magazine’s longtime editor points out, Esquire grabs “the high normal American man,” someone who’s curious and as interested in high-quality journalism as much as “funny jokes from a beautiful woman.” Granger is impressed by a coming show called “Horse Players” that examines life at the races, and would love to see a comedic program discussing the issues of the day for men and hosted by “a budding Seth Meyers.”

There’s a sizable contingent that sees Esquire’s appeal as broadest among guys who are pretty well worn. “Esquire would not be a typical brand for 18- to 25-year-olds to embrace, and it doesn’t seem they would easily have permission to extend there,” said Denis Riney, a senior partner at branding consultant Brandlogic. “I would guess Esquire TV would appeal to a more serious, contemplative person, one who can appreciate an evening of watching “Book Notes” on C-SPAN while cradling a Glenmorangie.”

And then there’s male remote-control behavior to consider. Guys have always hunted and gathered. If I want to see someone gorge on barbecue, I can find “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” If I want sports, I’ve got umpteen options. Do I need everything on one network?

TV executives have long maintained viewers want their favorite stuff in a single place, and while that may be true for aficionados of cooking, mysteries or cartoons, it may not be the same for wide slices of demographic. When Viacom announced the launch of Spike in 2003, then-president Albie Hecht told the Wall Street Journal, “Here’s a chance for the modern man to get all of his interests served in one place.” Esquire is presenting that chance again, but I suspect guys grew accustomed to cobbling together their own TV regimen long ago.

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