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New TNN embraces populist culture, hopes to dethrone cable rating kings 

Sally Beatty  
Make no mistake about it. The make-over of the Nashville Network, a.k.a. TNN, into the new National Network is aimed squarely at dethroning the ratings kings of the cable TV kingdom: TNT and TBS and the No. 1-ranked USA cable channel.

Viacom's MTV Networks gained control of TNN (yes, the National Network is continuing to use the TNN acronym) five months ago following Viacom's merger with CBS. After extensive research and focus groups, Mr Tom Freston, MTV Networks' chairman and chief executive, says TNN has the potential to become a billion-dollar business. That compares to the roughly $350 million in ad revenue TNN is expected to generate this year.

"We're going to move this network to the sweet spot for 18 to 49-year-olds, where the people are, and where money is," says Mr Freston. To get there, TNN is being overhauled from a narrowly focused Southern network to a broad general-entertainment network emphasising popular culture. And it doesn't hurt that TNN is already getting a huge ratings boost from the World Wrestling Federation, which defected with its seven million-plus strong audience from USA to TNN.

So far, Madison Avenue is taking a wait-and-see attitude.

"Going from a country format to a broad-based general entertainment is going to be really tough," says Mr John Muszynski, chief broadcast investment officer at Bcom3 Group's Starcom Media, which represents clients such as Kellogg, General Motors and Philip Morris. "I haven't seen anything to indicate that it is completely thought through."

A spokesman for MTV says that media buyers will understand the changes after MTV details its plans in November. MTV's Mr Freston says the channel will go through an "evolution," not a "revolution," and retain the values that research shows still resonate with viewers, including its "grass-roots" feel and "authenticity."

The goal is to attract an audience more attractive to advertisers by drawing in younger men and more women. Half of TNN's average prime-time audience during the last year, or about 382,000 viewers, were 55 years old and over, according to Nielsen Media Research. Only about one-third of TNN's regular audience during that time period, or 237,000 people, were in the demographic group most coveted by advertisers, adults aged 18 to 49.

Originally launched in 1983 as The Nashville Network, the network's name was shortened to TNN two years ago in an effort to attract younger viewers who might have been turned off by the reference to its Southern roots.

But, programming changes always involve considerable risk. Other media companies have stumbled badly in their attempts to reposition established TV networks. News Corp.'s joint venture with Saban Entertainment, the Fox Family Channel, lost droves of viewers in the last two years in a too-hasty bid to grab younger audiences. And Hallmark's Odyssey network was dropped by some cable systems two years ago when it tried to transform itself from a religious network into a contemporary family channel.

Experts at marketing narrowly focused channels like MTV (for teeny-boppers) and Nickelodeon (for children), MTV Networks has little experience in general entertainment - which is exactly the opportunity Viacom has with TNN.

Ms Betsy Frank, MTV Network's head of research, says what TBS, TNT and USA are "trying to do is reach everyone but not necessarily get anyone to feel a sense of loyalty to the channel [just to the programmes]. That is against the MTV Networks philosophy, and that's where we saw the opportunity."

(Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting owns TBS and TNT, while Barry Diller's USA Networks owns the USA channel.)

TNN's broad distribution - it is already in 78 million of the nation's 82.3 million cable and satellite homes - is an enviable place to start. Still, drawing in more viewers without alienating TNN's current audience won't be easy. TNN is also about to lose its single highest-rated regular programme excluding the WWF, the Nascar auto-racing events, which are leaving in November to go to Fox Broadcasting, General Electric's NBC and Time Warner's TBS.

The weekend schedule, featuring fishing and hunting shows and Sprint-car racing events like "World of Outlaws," will remain largely intact for now, save for plugging the hole when Nascar drives off to the competition.

Instead, weekday daytime and prime-time schedules will be the first to go under the knife. With the exception of "Dukes of Hazzard," other signature shows such as "The Grand Ole Opry," "Alice" and "The Real McCoys" are probably not long for this world.

The Wall Street Journal

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.

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