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Spike goes to the mat to get guys

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Times Staff Writer

WHERE have the guys gone?

It’s a question that has had television executives scratching their heads in recent years as young male viewers -- always elusive -- have become even scarcer, lured away by Xboxes, iPods and an array of other tech gadgets and online entertainment, some of which they probably don’t want their mothers to know about.

Now Spike TV is hoping to bring some of them back by cultivating a more manly image -- call it the cable network for the anti-metrosexual.

To put it even more plainly: “The Rock is Spike,” explained Spike President Doug Herzog. “Jude Law is not Spike.”

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Three years after executives proclaimed it the “first network for men,” Spike has adopted a new slogan (“Get more action”), replaced its bubble-letter logo with hefty block print and scheduled a slew of action-oriented programs including “The Ultimate Fighter” and “Blade,” which premieres Wednesday -- all part of an effort to sharpen the channel’s identity.

“I think everybody understood the notion that it’s a network for men, but what did that mean?” said Herzog, who also heads Spike’s sister networks Comedy Central and TV Land (Spike being the rowdy brother). “We weren’t going to do the pornography network, which was probably the best idea if you’re looking for these viewers. We kind of landed on our notion of what it is: an unapologetic, action-oriented, home base for guys.

“Action means car chases and dust-ups and fistfights and Bruce Willis movies but also means the action of the card table, the action of Vegas and beautiful women,” he said. “If it’s testosterone-driven, bold and unpretentious, we think there’s room for it.”

Spike is not alone in making a pound-on-your-chest appeal to men. Lately, there seems to be a resurgence in macho-themed marketing: Burger King is running a new “Eat like a man” campaign for its Texas Double Whopper -- cholesterol and weight gain be damned! -- and Miller Lite ads feature celebrities debating “Man Laws,” including how soon you can make a play for a woman who dumped your best friend. (It depends on how hot she is.)

Some of these advertisers apparently already view Spike as a good place to find a captive audience of young men; spots for Burger King, Toyota and Coors dominate the network’s commercials.

Still, it remains to be seen if Spike’s pumped-up image will be enough to draw a substantial share of guys back to the television screen when they have so many other pursuits vying for their attention. In 2000, 18- to 34-year-old males made up just 9.5% of the American television viewing audience; so far this year, their share has dropped to 9%, according to Nielsen Media Research.

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Keith Richman, chief executive officer of Break.com, a user-generated entertainment website aimed at young men that attracts around 900,000 unique users a day, said Spike’s new strategy makes sense.

“There’s no channel that really talks to guys on their level like their guys and says, ‘We know you’re not pretty, but we embrace you,’ ” he said. “Whether you’ll be able to get the guys off the Internet back to watching TV is another matter. They’re competing with being outdoors and the new gadget that just came out and ‘Nacho Libre’ at the box office and guys’ desire to go out and meet girls. Lay on top of that our natural proclivity to be fickle.”

Those distractions haven’t hurt only the television industry, of course. Movies and music sales have also slumped in recent years, in part because young men -- once the driving force of popular culture -- have so many entertainment options.

Spike’s attempt to recast itself as rough-hewn is the latest incarnation of the channel, which premiered as the Nashville Network in the 1980s, then was renamed TNN in 2000 and switched to a pop entertainment format. Three years later, the Viacom-owned network was relaunched as Spike TV, setting out to capture young male viewers.

But with a grab bag of programming that included sexpot cartoon “Stripperella” and episodes of “Star Trek,” the network’s original mandate proved too broad, and its effort to grow largely stalled. So far this year, Spike has averaged 1.27 million viewers in prime time -- around the same number it drew in 2004 -- 15% of them (about 192,000) men ages 18 to 34. (More than a fifth of the prime-time audience is actually women 18 to 49.) That means the network draws fewer young men, on average, than Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, TNT, ESPN, USA or Comedy Central during prime time, according to Nielsen Media Research.

In many ways, Spike has had to contend with the challenge inherent in any cable channel narrowly tailored to one demographic: Be nimble and relevant, or risk losing an audience with a short attention span. Female-oriented networks Lifetime and Oxygen have been undergoing their own evolutions, creating new programming and trying to find the right mix to keep women watching.

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Shows in development

SPIKE executives hope the network’s beefed-up approach will help propel it past its competitors. Key to the network’s rebranding is a new slate of action programs in development, including “Amped,” a drama about a mysterious outbreak in Los Angeles, and “The Kill Pit,” which follows a bank robbery gone awry. Also in the works: “Afro Samurai,” an animated series about a black samurai produced and voiced by Samuel L. Jackson and scheduled to premiere in November.

“We think we will consistently have something that will interest the audience that nobody else does,” said Pancho Mansfield, executive vice president of original programming. “Fun is a big part of it. We’re not out to be provocative to the critics necessarily.”

The network is hoping to make a big splash this week when it airs the two-hour premiere of its first original scripted series, “Blade.” Based on the popular Marvel superhero, the drama features Kirk “Sticky” Jones as an immortal warrior engaged in a battle with a vampire underworld seeking to destroy the human race. The series is being produced by David S. Goyer, who wrote the screenplays for the successful “Blade” movie trilogy that starred Wesley Snipes.

“It’s a great franchise -- it has its own brand, its own following,” Mansfield said. “There isn’t anything like ‘Blade’ on. This is a bit grittier and darker than most things on television.”

Jim Rosenthal, president of New Line Television, said production turned out to be more substantial than originally planned, as producers sought to replicate the high-end action scenes of the films.

Young men “are so fickle and choosy,” Rosenthal said. “You’ve got to get it right or they might not give you a second chance.”

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Spike is trying to build a buzz for series through a major online marketing effort that includes trailers posted on websites such as YouTube.com.

“We have to go where the guys are,” Herzog said.

Another tent pole of the network’s new strategy is its partnership with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the top producer of the increasing popular mixed martial arts fights.

Spike recently renewed its deal with UFC through 2008, and no wonder: The third season of “The Ultimate Fighter” -- a reality competition among 16 mixed martial arts fighters around the world that was scheduled to end Saturday night with a live finale -- drew an average audience of 2.2 million viewers and in its Thursday night time slot enjoyed an audience jump of 410% among males 18 to 34.

“It is to boxing what snowboarding is to skiing: faster and more extreme and more dangerous,” Herzog said.

“And most importantly, your father hates it.”

That said, the Spike TV president said he didn’t want to leave the impression that network is now only for men interested in bare-knuckle combat or bloody vampire slayings.

“This is a big, wide-open category, and we want to appeal to a lot of different guys,” he said. “It’s not about being the toughest guy -- it’s about not being afraid to be a guy.”

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