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Can TNN score with men?

The cable network, which was going to be known as Spike (until Spike Lee heard about it), hopes it can take the hit formula used by such magazines as Maxim to the small screen and turn itself into the destination for young males.

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 26, 2003

NEW YORK - Gadgets, wrestling and Pamela Anderson - is this what guys want?

Albie Hecht thinks so. The president of the TV network that may or may not be known as Spike is betting that a formula that's been a big hit in magazines will translate to television.

Like Maxim, FHM and Stuff in print, the Viacom-owned network wants to create a small-screen haven for young men.

"Everywhere in pop culture right now there's this sense of "what's going on with guys?' " he said. "Well, what's going on with guys is a lot, and we want to give them a channel to discuss it, to give them guidance, to give them entertainment . . . to be their new best friend."

Cable's TNN had hoped, by now, that its new name, Spike, would be in place. It's not because of filmmaker Spike Lee's battle to stop it. Network executives learned Tuesday that a trial will likely be scheduled in August for Lee's challenge.

Tonight, the network debuts a trio of programs, including Stripperella, an animated series featuring a superhero stripper based on and voiced by Anderson.

TNN, formerly the Nashville Network, became the National Network, a general interest channel, in 2001 after Viacom took over. Its direction was foreshadowed when it became the home of professional wrestling.

Viacom, which also owns CBS, Paramount, the Showtime pay-cable network, basic cable networks MTV, VH1 and BET, and book publisher Simon & Schuster, has made a fortune with networks that dominate a particular niche in the marketplace. Its leaders believed that TNN would be more valuable if it became known as a destination for young men.

"To the extent that magazines like Maxim, HFM and Stuff have really revolutionized the magazine business, it certainly would suggest that you may be able to do the same thing with television," said Larry Gerbrandt, a television analyst with Kagan World Media.

"Nobody had really gone after it in such a blatant way."

Not even Maxim. The magazine's publisher, Dennis Publishing Co., announced 18 months ago that it wanted to start a cable network. It even had a natural name: Maxim Entertainment Network, or M.E.N.

"That's about as far as our plans have moved since then," said Andy Clerkson, general manager of Maxim.

Instead of creating a network, Maxim has been producing programming for other networks, such as Maxim's Hot 100, a look at the best-looking women in entertainment, which ran on NBC on June 14. The company's Stuff magazine is even producing a show on gadgets for TNN.

"We wish them well with the project," Clerkson said. "I think it's a commendable idea."

Lee, the director of Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and 25th Hour, doesn't think so.

He has complained that the network's name change to Spike would associate him with the "demeaning, vapid and quasi-pornographic content" of the network.

"They're not appealing to their intellects," Gerbrandt said. "They're appealing to the butt-scratching caveman in all of us - cartoons with naked strippers, giant sweaty men body-slamming each other and monster trucks."

Hecht considers this characterization unfair. The network's schedule is pocked with quality, including CSI: Crime Scene Investigation reruns and the Star Trek series, he said.

Men's Health magazine, GQ, Car & Driver and CBS Marketwatch are also producing programming for the network, he said.

"This isn't just about the frat boy part of people's minds," he said. "This is about the broadness of what guys are in their totality. They're interested in cars, fitness, health and travel. And this is what we're offering them."

Young men are considered a prize demographic by advertisers, and if TNN can prove that it reaches the audience consistently, the effort to brand it as the network for men will be a smart move, said Geraldine Laybourne, president of Oxygen Media and former Nickelodeon head.

But TNN has to guard against going so aggressively for the lowest common denominator that it turns advertisers off, she said.

"They are going to be walking a very fine line," Laybourne said.

A bigger problem may be in trying to create a niche that is too broad. TNN is targeting men 18 to 49. Nickelodeon rules among the under-11 set, and MTV is tops among music-centered teens.

TNN's prime-time audience, which is down slightly from last year, is 65 percent male. But ESPN has a 79 percent male audience and Comedy Central is at 64 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Even the History Channel, although its audience tends to be older, has a greater percentage of men: 72 percent.

"If they were going out there trying to get distribution, they would have a hard time convincing cable operators that men need their own channel," Laybourne said. "Cable operators have been catering to men since the beginning of time."

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