Spike at 10: How the Guy's Network Grew Older, Wiser and More Female-Friendly

"The Kill Point"

Celebrating a decade on the air, the "first network for men" is now exploring gender neutrality; says president Kevin Kay: "I wish Esquire Network luck, it's a challenging space."

This story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In TV years, a decade might not seem like a long stretch for a cable network, but the present-day Spike is virtually unrecognizable from the one that launched in 2003. Filling its early months with remnants of its first incarnation, the heartland-friendly The Nashville Network, alongside polar-opposite originals (remember a cartoon Pamela Anderson as exotic-dancing secret agent Stripperella? Anyone?), the "first network for men" is now becoming a network for both sides of the sofa.

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Spike president Kevin Kay, who has been with the company since before the TNN rebrand, is careful to note the Viacom-owned net is not programming to women. The advertising benefits of going broader just has it pulling back on catering exclusively to the Y chromosome -- and poised to move the top 25 cable network further up the ratings dial. Some Spike series -- new flagships include Bar Rescue, Auction Hunters and Ink Master -- are skewing as much as 50 percent female in viewers (up from the 30 percent that were tuning in to prime­time a year ago). All the while, Kay says, Spike has become more business-savvy with its programming for the boys: Dropping its 700 hours devoted to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, it took a stake in the smaller mixed martial arts outfit Bellator and is airing 27 Bellator fights a year.

This spring, the network announced its first foray into prestige scripted programming with such event series in development as Hit Men, about how the mafia took over the music industry in the 1970s, from Hatfields & McCoys producer Leslie Greif, Sons of Anarchy's Chris Collins and Gene Simmons; a movie about Whitey Bulger, Boston's notorious organized crime leader, by Oscar-winning Crash scribe Bobby Moresco; and a mini­series based on the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S embassy in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in four American deaths.

As Spike and Kay ready themselves for another 10 years, with scripted projects in development and increasingly broader reality fare, Kay sat down with THR to talk through the age-old challenge of pleasing both genders.

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The Hollywood Reporter: How do you win over female viewers you've ignored?

Kevin Kay: Brand perception is the biggest obstacle. We spent seven years with fighting and wrestling dominating our schedule, so I think we developed shows that really worked for a young, male audience and had to have a good view of success. Ink Master is 50/50 male-female. Surprisingly, more women are watching Tattoo Nightmares than men. We did a good job of branding it as the network for men, but we want to make sure women are comfortable when they come to the channel.

THR: What is your commitment to wrestling?

Kay: We had a lot of success with the UFC from a ratings perspective, but we didn't own it. There was no backend for participating, and we felt we helped them build this business that has a valuation of $2 billion. We got the opportunity with Bellator to do something a little different, which was to become owners, not renters, and build equity in the league and share with them -- and share the value in the long term. We know the space works, and we want to do it a little differently this time.

THR: Is the name Spike worth keeping, considering how associated it is with being male-skewed?

Kay: There's equity in it. We built the brand over 10 years, and changing a network name is never easy. It changed from TNN to Spike while I was here: a big decision and an expensive decision. We have a tremendous amount of value in the name Spike, so it's not necessarily something you throw out.

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THR: Bar Rescue is one of Spike's biggest hits. What makes that right for the brand today?

Kay: What's great about Bar Rescue, which we've learned from shows we're making now, is that people love a happy ending. The shows in the past that we used to do did not have happy endings, like 1000 Ways to Die. I mean, we love that show, but we've kind of moved away from the dying to shows that have a little bit more redemption. Auction Hunters and Bar Rescue are the first two shows that we did a couple of years ago, when we were rethinking and broadening. A guy loves the idea of renovating a bar and owning your own business, but it's a show that he can sit down with his wife and watch. Women tell us all the time that they love that show.

THR: Spike recently bought Cops, which had been on Fox since 1989. What was appealing about the property?

Kay: What was appealing was 25 years of extraordinary ratings. We can put it on Saturday night at 8 p.m. -- same show, same time, different channel. It will do very well for us. The library was part of that decision, and it is doing phenomenally well. July was our best month in three years, and a lot of that was due to having the Cops library to help support the daytime. I think there's a lot of Cops-like shows on television. We've been guilty of making some ourselves, but none of them is ever as successful as the original.

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THR: You are developing unscripted projects on Benghazi and Whitey Bulger. How do those fit?

Kay: It's really about the authenticity and the currentness of these unscripted shows and how that can be applied to move the audience to scripted. Benghazi was one of the first things we thought of, because, as a miniseries, it just feels right. It's an authentic story with real characters and real heroes. It will be very current and continue to be as Mrs. Clinton probably makes a run at the presidency. Personally, I've wanted to do something on Whitey Bulger for some time. We're in the very early stages of developing it, but we think we can differentiate ourselves from what else is out there and fit with what we're doing here.

THR: What would you say to the Esquire Network, which is now trying to brand itself as a male network?

Kay: I wish them luck. It's a challenging space. Comedy Central has been enormously successful in the young male space for a long time and knows how to get them and keep them. But my friends over there will tell you that it's a very challenging environment. Young men spend a lot of time playing video games and on YouTube and the Internet. It's more challenging than I think people realize to get them to continue to watch TV in the way they've watched TV in the past.