Spike’s Rebranding as Paramount Network Is the Latest Maneuver in Cable’s Battle for Viewers

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Oxygen rolled out the yellow crime-scene tape and ripped-from-the-headlines stories and invited armchair detectives to test their sleuthing skills in a recent rebrand of the NBCUniversal-owned cable channel. Unofficial tagline: It’s not your grandmother’s true-crime network.

This comes on the heels of other full-scale makeovers (A+E’s H2 to Viceland) and shifts in focus (USA dropped airy, “blue-sky” dramas and went gritty and dark, TruTV leaned away from low-brow reality and into comedy) as cable networks battle for viewers spending less time with linear TV and more with streaming services, social media and digital entertainment.

The latest in this tidal wave of tweaks and reboots is Paramount Network, formerly Spike, launching Jan. 18 with a live, hour-long version of the massive hit Lip Sync Battle as its stake in the ground. But execs, purposely, aren’t calling this a relaunch. They’ll try to forge an identity wholly apart from the testosterone-laced Spike, even though they’re importing some of its most successful shows to Paramount Net, which they describe as a home for “premium, original storytelling.”

“This is a reinvention,” said Niels Schuurmans, CMO for Paramount Network, TV Land and CMT. “It’s a dramatic shift in attitude and programming. It’s a big, bold move.”

Potential fans will begin to see what Schuurmans means in the coming weeks, as Paramount Net kicks off a marketing campaign that aims to position it on par with HBO, Netflix and other prestige TV hotshots.

There will be scant mention of Spike, except in some tongue-in-cheek social media posts that will have the guy-centric channel cycling through the stages of grief as it gets left behind. Paramount Net will lead with its ambitious new programming like the six-part event series Waco, about the deadly 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound. Its heavy-hitting cast, including Michael Shannon, Taylor Kitsch, Melissa Benoist and John Leguizamo, will stump for the project, which will also get 60-second documentaries on digital and discussion threads on Reddit. “The content is the bait into the brand,” Schuurmans said. “It’s the actionable piece.”

The marketing has to match the shows for being “immersive and engaging,” he said, and a spark for cultural conversation.

For instance, American Woman, a half-hour comedy (based on the life of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ Kyle Richards) starring Alicia Silverstone about an unconventional single mom in the ’70s, may stoke the current national discussion on feminism. It inspired sponsor brands to dig into their archives and produce new eye-catching spots that look like vintage commercials, and could bring up an old tagline in the form of a question: “You’ve come a long way, baby?”

And for Heathers, the “pitch-black comedy anthology” based on the cult classic movie, promotion will include social media profiles and Instagram feeds from the characters, allowing fans to interact with the murderous mean girls on the show, set in current-day high school.

Execs won’t miss an opportunity to flag the new net’s star power (opening night’s Lip Sync Battle will be packed with series’ A-listers), and actor Kevin Costner and writer-director Taylor Sheridan of the upcoming drama Yellowstone will participate in storyteller events on both coasts.

The channel’s rebirth as Paramount Net comes as parent company Viacom continues to restructure its TV properties (there have been C-suite changes, layoffs and consolidations), with Paramount sitting at the center of core brands BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nick Jr. and Nickelodeon.

To give it a leg up and built-in viewers, the most-watched series from Spike (Ink Master, Bar Rescue, Bellator MMA) will migrate to Paramount Net, which landed American Woman and Heathers from sibling channel TV Land’s development roster.

Challenges in carving out a new channel include “being able to break through all the clutter and not lose the equity the original brand had,” said David Campanelli, evp, managing partner, video investment at Horizon Media. Sponsors, he said, “will make the shift.”

There’s plenty of advertiser demand for high-quality original programming, said Lisa Herdman, svp, director of national TV investment and branded content at RPA.

“Turner, AMC and FX are all killing it, but there’s only so much inventory there and it sells out pretty quickly,” she said. “We’re always looking for more premium content for our clients.”

The switch from Spike to Paramount is “a smart move,” because it’s easily explained to sponsors like RPA’s Honda and Acura, and it has the weight of the Viacom family and the Paramount legacy behind it.

While execs want viewers to know it’s not a movie channel, they’ll draw from the heritage of Paramount Pictures for a halo effect, using cinematic tools of the trade for the net’s promotion, complete with fonts and camera angles familiar to film buffs.

And of course there’s the logo: the iconic mountain and stars with the name in script, simplified and streamlined.

“We’re paying tribute to this 100-year-old brand, but we’re contemporizing it,” Schuurmans said. “We want to convey that we’re bringing that big-screen storytelling expertise to the small screen.”

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