Although it is generally accepted that channel brand identities are more important in the post-network era where increased competition pushes networks to keep looking for that next niche (or micro-niche) audience, today’s brands take on a number of different meanings. Brands are made up of paratextual content (slogans, logos, commercials) and discursive meanings, but they can also reflect program development strategies and audience targeting. When channels change their brand, we get a great glimpse of what executives are thinking—or, what they aren’t thinking. Recent shifts from AMC and FX display how contemporary cable channels use brands differently and what that use tells us about the direction of both channels. While AMC’s new slogan cannot cover up its flaws, FX’s extension is a confident, if somewhat dangerous move that reflects the channel’s inventive thinking.
After four years of “Story Matters Here,” AMC unveiled a new campaign during the season finale of The Walking Dead: “Something More.” The move includes an updated logo, including altered typeface for the AMC portion of the icon, and a new color scheme. Linda Schupack, executive vice president of marketing, told Ad Week that the new tagline “speaks to the idea that we’re going to go a little deeper, and we’re going to take a twist where you don’t necessarily expect it.” Schupack also noted that the “More” will serve as a placeholder so the channel can use specific words to describe various shows (i.e. “Something Engaging”) “because the thing about this brand is, we are eclectic, we are not just one thing.”
You could argue that the shift from “Story Matters Here” to “Something More” works as a preemptive move to guide viewers past the halcyon days of Mad Men (which it just began its penultimate season) and Breaking Bad (ending this summer) and into a world where AMC airs more reality shows than scripted originals and where zombies and talk shows about zombies pay the bills. This perhaps signals AMC knows that in order to compete in today’s cable environment, it needs to appeal to more—and different kinds—of viewers.
However, what the changes really reflect is that AMC still lacks direction. “Something More” feels like the weak first draft of HBO’s nearly two-decade old “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO,” which is fitting because AMC once fashioned itself as the new HBO, but confusing now that the channel has moved away from that goal with an injection of reality and syndicated episodes of CSI: Miami. It is telling that AMC’s modifications are less HBO and more like TNT’s various “Drama Is…” campaigns. AMC wants to hold on to the prestige of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and the Sunday drama series as long as it can, but it also wants to appeal to different audience segments during the week. With different portions of AMC’s schedule and development at war with one another, the channel really has no idea what it is, or where it is going. As a result, its new and generic brand is an attempt to cover up, rather than embrace, its eclectic—read: disconnected—programming.
Although AMC’s brand shift signifies its problems and lack of imagination, FX’s brand (and channel) extension suggests a high level of measured confidence. FX and its spinoff channel FXX will be branded generationally: FX’s current and older-skewing dramas staying on the home channel , while the younger-skewing comedies like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The League will help jumpstart FXX. At the recent upfront, president John Landgraf announced that FX will target adults 18-49, FXX 18-34, and movie-heavy channel FXM 25-54 with the hope that as viewers age, they will move right along the FX family of channels .
This kind of audience segmenting is not new in the post-network era. Big media companies regularly use individual networks and channels to hit different viewer segments. Disney expertly guides female viewers from childhood (Disney Channel) through their teen years (ABC Family), and then finally into adulthood (ABC). Still, FX’s decision to attempt something similar while moving some of its more established series around is fascinating, if risky. Despite the fundamental changes ripping through the industry, there is still a sense that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. FX, one of the most successful and respected channels around, certainly isn’t broken. And there is a chance that this blows up in Landgraf’s face—that the exported comedy’s ratings fall and that the increase in the number of programs in production takes a toll on FX’s creative juices and/or bottom line.
But what Landgraf and FX understand—and why I believe this plan is going to succeed—is that brands just aren’t empty slogans and redesigned logos. At their best, brands reflect and guide particular development strategies that shape audience expectations. They take on a life of their own. Over the last decade, FX grew its brand because it developed good programs people like; its slogan or its logo didn’t matter. In fact, the channel simultaneously established mature dramas and sophomoric comedies, reaching a level of eclectic that AMC so desperately aims for. Thus, whereas AMC’s new slogan reflects its consistent lack of direction, FX’s brand extension embodies its continuous push forward.