Tuning into brand identity

Networks now rise or fall on the strength of the identity they project to viewers. UPN is a case in point.

January 30, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

LOS ANGELES -- One of the biggest success stories of the TV season involves UPN (United Paramount Network) and how, in just a few months, it has won the loyalty of teen boys and young men.

UPN's effort is a case study in identifying a target audience and then creating a brand identity that attracts those viewers. One of the lessons of this year's Winter Press Tour here is that brand identity is everything in network television these days, and the sharper your focus the better your chances of success.

Executives at each of the networks tried to explain who they are or who they want viewers to think they are, but no one put it more succinctly than Dean Valentine, the president and CEO of UPN, who said, "I think if it has high testosterone, we'll air it."

The high-testosterone hit responsible for much of UPN's success since September is "WWF Smackdown!" -- the World Wrestling Federation production that brought pro wrestling back to network television for the first time since the 1950s.

Last Tuesday, in the same vein, UPN added "I DARE YOU! The Ultimate Challenge," a "reality" show with Evel Knievel as host that featured "Bigfoot," the monster truck, trying to set a jump record. "I DARE YOU" is now a Tuesday-night fixture. This week, the stunt will be "Limo of Death," which features a speeding sports car on a collision course with a stationary stretch limousine.

UPN believes monster trucks and vehicular violence will be just as big a hit with its newfound young male audience as wrestling. One of its showcase specials during February sweeps"will be "Monster Trux 2000: The Thrillennium," two hours of wall-to-wall super trucks.

When Valentine was asked if cock fighting was next for UPN, he didn't rule it out. At any rate, he said he certainly doesn't mind UPN's being known as the network of wrestling and monster trucks. "We are dedicated to talking to the audience that we said we would talk to [in promises made to advertisers]. We will talk to them in whatever way we can to reach them and make contact with them," he added.

There is no doubt that UPN has made contact with young men and boys. Last year at this time, some analysts wondered whether UPN would even survive as the sixth network. Today, after adding 1.2 million viewers since September, it is virtually tied with the higher-profile WB network both in overall viewership and young adults.

More important in the multi-channel universe, UPN has tripled its audience of teen men and now has the highest concentration of males ages 12 to 34 of any broadcast network. And Adam Ware, the chief operating officer of UPN, said 30 new advertisers have joined UPN this season, and revenues have increased 43.5 percent over a year ago. (He declined to give a dollar figure.)

In other words, UPN has carved out a highly desirable niche on the TV landscape and translated it into instant advertising dollars.

UPN's success has set off a chain reaction among its nearest competitors. Much of UPN's gain has come at the expense of the WB, which is down 24 percent in male teens and 27 percent in men 18 to 34 compared to last year.

With series like "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," "Dawson's Creek" and "Felicity," the WB was very much about young male viewers gazing at young female stars. But with more boys gazing at The Rock and other stars of the WWF (including such females as Chyna), the WB is forced to refocus its brand.

Whereas most of the promotion for fall shows emphasized long, loving camera shots of the female stars, the WB's midseason emphasis during the Winter Press Tour seemed to be on images of the young family as featured on its highest-rated show, "7th Heaven." Good luck, trying to repackage "Dawson's Creek" as a show about family.

A further indication of brand identity concern at the WB came in the announcement last week that it had hired Carl Byrd, one of the architects of the Gap's brand identity, as senior vice president in its marketing department. Byrd co-created the Gap's khaki-swing campaign. Byrd's job at the WB: Focus the brand.

Fox was also hit hard by UPN gains, and is down 10 percent in teens. Except for the midseason sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle," the season has been a disaster. The biggest disasters have been action-adventure series like Chris Carter's "Harsh Realm" and rude-and-crude sitcoms like "Action," both of which flopped and both of which were targeted at teen boys and young men.

Sandy Grushow, chairman of the Fox Television Entertainment Group, acknowledged the debacle, saying, "Not only has our overall performance declined, but we've even begun to see the dilution of our valuable brand identity."

What is that brand identity?

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