Young Man, Your Couch Is Calling

Spike TV tries to reach an elusive -- and valuable -- audience

Cable executives have made a mad dash over the past several years to zero in on niche TV audiences, from fly fishermen to 1970s game show fanatics. Women have gotten tons of attention, too, with special channels like Lifetime, Oxygen, and WE. But the programmers missed one group along the way: young men.

Now it's the guys' turn. Later this summer, TNN will relaunch as Spike TV (VIA ) "The First Network for Men," and its arrival could signal a new wave of programming aimed at 18-to-34-year-old males. Jumping into the fray with TV projects are red-hot men's magazines, like Maxim and Men's Health. Advertisers, too, are rushing in to woo men in their free-spending years. "It's been women three, men nothing," says Albie Hecht, president of Spike TV, part of media giant Viacom Inc. "We want to be a real home base for [young men], from fashion to finance."

Of course, men haven't been ignored as a TV audience. Certainly, pro sports broadcasts and channels like ESPN (DIS ) Comedy Central (VIA ), and Fox's new Fuel, which focuses on extreme sports, draw plenty of guys. But few media companies have dedicated themselves to aggregating the young male audience, which is hard to capture because of the plethora of other entertainment choices, from the Net to video games. What's more, it turns out that men 18 to 34 are the smallest audience watching TV in prime time behind teenagers, according to Nielsen Media Research. When young men were asked where they first hear about products they are likely to buy, only 51% cited TV, vs. 70% of young women, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising, a trade group for local broadcasters.

The new men's programming could be the catalyst to close that gap, say media buyers. "This is a very elusive audience. Since so many young guys are multitasking at night, with computers, games, and TV at the same time, it makes them very hard to pin down," says Andy Donchin, director of national broadcast at media buying firm Carat USA. "If a channel can lock in this concentrated audience, I applaud them."

Though men are easily distracted from the tube, Spike, which will reach 86 million cable and satellite homes through TNN's old distribution, says it's hoping its programs will turn them all into couch potatoes. While a lawsuit by director Spike Lee, now resolved, has held up the channel's official name change, many of its shows are already on the air, a mix of titillation, extreme sports, pro wrestling, and trusty reruns (think Miami Vice, CSI, and Star Trek: The Next Generation). As part of a slate of adult cartoons, Stripperella features the voice of Pamela Anderson as a woman who's an exotic dancer by day and a superhero at night. Gary the Rat features actor Kelsey Grammer's voice as a sleazy New York lawyer. There's also a gotcha game show called Oblivious and a trampoline and basketball competition called SlamBall. And lots of Bond, James Bond.

So is TV just borrowing the successful fraternity-friendly "laddie" magazine formula? Absolutely not, says Hecht: "You can't just give men beer and babes." Spike will also feature live updates from CBS MarketWatch (VIA ) (also part of Viacom), lifestyle tips from Men's Health magazine, and shows on new gadgets from Stuff magazine. The channel has also announced a partnership with the Black Filmmaker Foundation to provide a platform for up-and-coming Asian, Latino, and African-American directors.

If Spike proves a success, more and more TV execs will likely be turning to magazines, forming links that could benefit both. "Can you imagine 10 years ago a broadcast network looking to a magazine for substance?" says Steven P. Murphy, president of Men's Health parent Rodale Inc., who is pondering a separate Men's Health channel. "That's the beauty of cable's segmentation." Ad pages at Men's Health, with about 10 million readers, rose 30% in the first half of this year, vs. 1.8% for the industry. "Men 18 to 34 are enormously influential consumers who advertisers are increasingly determined to connect with," says David Zinczenko, the monthly's editor-in-chief. "Historically, few venues have been able to reach them."

That helps explain why 38 new advertisers have flocked to the transitioning TNN this year, accounting for $40 million in additional revenues, says Hecht. "This is the audience we need to reach," says Debbie Myers, vice-president of media services at Taco Bell (YUM ). "Heavy fast-food users tend to be younger and male." Taco Bell now spends nearly as much advertising on Spike as it does on MTV (VIA ) and ESPN, and even does product placements on shows like Oblivious. "We like that the channel is a little bit edgier," adds Myers.

Edgy is one way to describe it. Bawdy might be another. A favorite character on the channel could be Bluto, the beer-swilling, food-fighting character portrayed by John Belushi in National Lampoon's Animal House. To commemorate the movie's 25th anniversary, Spike plans to air a making-of documentary on Aug. 24, Go Inside: Animal House. What better way to initiate Spike than with a wild night at the frat house.

By Tom Lowry in New York

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