Over at Time, James Poniewozik has a smart piece about the rebranding of G4, the video gaming channel owned by NBC Universal, into the Esquire Network:
Spike’s sensibility was more along the lines of Maxim–gadgets-and-girls-oriented magazines whose philosophy was not that men needed a magazine to make them better but that they were already good enough. Spike has dropped the “TV for men” branding over the years, though it still has MMA fighting and a logo that could serve well as a label for men’s body spray. (It also airs the brilliant reality-TV parody The Joe Schmo Show, which among other things is as good a spoof of reality-TV dudeliness as anything.)…
But NBCU must think the Esquire brand has some value to the channel — that a certain breed of upscale male viewer will see it as promising the kind of avuncular man’s-guide-to-life service that the magazine serves up alongside its long news features and the Funny Joke from a Beautiful Woman column. Will there be shows about buying the perfect tux? On mixing Hemingway’s favorite cocktail?
So far, the few announced series include Knife Fight, a competition among young chefs, and a travel show called The Getaway. Cooking, travel — those sound like things that could appeal to a certain breed of demographically attractive, metrosexual men, and things that the rest of the cable universe kind of provides already, no?
Part of the interesting question in trying to do programming for men is how you’re defining them. When people talk about trying to lock down male viewers, some of the implication is that they’re looking for heterosexual men, rather than reaching out to gay men, because the assumption is that wealthy (read: desirable) gay men already have all of their needs met by Andy Cohen’s fabulous meanness over on Bravo. Picking Esquire as a branding partner also assumes that NBC Universal is going after a certain subset of heterosexual men, the kind who watch Top Chef, rather than the ones who are tuning in to Duck Dynasty and NFL games.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but it also seems like an inherently limited strategy. FX, one of the networks that’s oriented towards men, at least to the extent that it’s the rare channel where more men than women tune into its dramas, has built its brand in part by putting lots of different kinds of men in primetime, from ne’er-do-wells running a bar in Philly, to biker dudes in California, to middle-class football fans and their families, to super-spies with a twist. It’s a strategy that means that you can pull in audiences who are both eager to see exaggerated riffs on themselves on screen, and people who are eager to disappear into fantasies that have nothing to do with their lives. In general, trying to reach different kinds of men also means trying to catch men who watch television many different ways. Trying to lure young, tech-savvy viewers who are watching DVRed television or streaming shows online back to your network simply by giving them more content you think might like, and programming very narrowly to what you think their tastes are, seems like something of a fool’s errand.
And really, I think that attempt to narrowcast presents problems beyond the technological ones. What of Esquire’s brand is translatable into narrative? If it’s pseudo-intellectual justifications for drooling over hot women, that wouldn’t necessarily make it much different from Spike’s or Maxim’s. Some of its reported features could make good movie or mini-series adaptations, but those are expensive, hard to syndicate, and magazine stories are adapted into movies less often that the development deals places like New York and The Atlantic have in place would suggest. In other words, Esquire’s brand is transitional enough even as a magazine. Trying to import it wholesale, rather than developing an identity through programming, seems like a way to try to grab a new audience on the quick and cheap, rather than trying to figure out what works, and to learn who your audience is, rather than to dream of who it might be.