TV Article

The Nouveau Niche

How cartoon strippers and gay makeovers are the future. These are just some of the ways cable networks are looking to reel in viewers.

Stripperella | BLONDE AMBITIONS Spike gal Striperella
Image credit: Stripperella: Copyright Spike TV
BLONDE AMBITIONS Spike gal Striperella

Let's get this straight: Pam Anderson's P.I.-in-a-thong 'toon, ''Stripperella,'' is the highest-rated show on TNN, soon to be called Spike TV, formerly known as the Nashville Network. And ''Full Frontal Fashion,'' which had catwalked on the Metro Channel, is a breakout on WE: Women's Entertainment, formerly Romance Classics. And erstwhile CBS powerhouse ''Touched by an Angel'' is currently performing miracles on the Hallmark Channel, which was the Odyssey Network in another life -- name changes enough to confuse P. Diddy.

In an effort to grab a slice of the ever-expanding cable pie, networks are doing everything -- juggling lineups, redesigning logos, swiping ideas from rivals, and, yes, changing names -- to ensure their brand means something to the average viewer. Says Tim Spengler, Initiative Media's top TV buyer, ''They have to stand out in order to get noticed in a 100-channel-plus universe.''

Hence, the sometimes hostile makeovers. After a heavily publicized spat with director Spike Lee over its new moniker, TNN is finally ready to fulfill its all-male, all-the-time mission with ''SlamBall,'' ''Baywatch,'' and new offerings like ''100 Most Irresistible Women.'' ''There are three cable channels for women; there are none that specifically go after men,'' says programming VP Kevin Kay.

As for nets targeted to the fairer sex, WE and Oxygen (which just unveiled its new logo, Oh!) are focusing on chipping away at Lifetime's viewership. (Lifetime -- the gold standard of successful branding -- averaged 978,000 viewers per day this year, making it the No. 3 cable net behind Nickelodeon and Fox News Channel.) Oxygen is sampling the naughty approach with shows like ''Talk Sex With Sue Johanson,'' while WE favors celebs, premiering a couples' home-improvement show created by Courteney Cox Arquette. And Lifetime's feeling the heat: In addition to the couple-centric home show ''Merge,'' execs are easing up on the damsel-in-distress movies.

On the artsy-fartsy beat, Bravo and scrappy newcomer Trio are challenging veteran A&E. ''A&E is really not an arts and entertainment network anymore,'' sniffs Bravo president Jeff Gaspin, whose new offerings include the much-hyped ''Queer Eye for the Straight Guy'' and ''Boy Meets Boy.'' While the proposed gay channel backed by Showtime and MTV has been shelved, Gaspin denies that Bravo is filling that slot: ''We're an arts network that's about taking chances and being controversial.''

They can all learn from older cable sibling MTV, which perenially keeps its brand at the forefront. ''[We] never lose touch with our audience, never get too comfortable,'' says MTV president Van Toffler. ''[Our viewers] reinvent themselves every few years, and you can never get too attached to a philosophy, style, or program.''

Take note, Ozzy.

(Additional reporting by Nicholas Fonseca)

Originally posted Jul 25, 2003 Published in issue #720 Jul 25, 2003 Order article reprints