To Rebrand for Generation Xers, TV Land Ditches Nostalgia

The network swaps traditional comedies for edgier fare

Since it launched in 1996, TV Land has been the television version of comfort food, satisfying nostalgia-loving audiences with a mix of beloved reruns and, more recently, original sitcoms like Hot in Cleveland that felt as familiar (and dated) as those syndicated shows. But as the landscape has changed, its core demo of viewers in their 30s and 40s has developed a far more cultured TV palate. "With all of the options now, to go back in time and look at programming from years ago, you can't survive on being a library offering anymore," said Chris Geraci, president of national broadcast, OMD. "That's not going to work going forward."

So the network stopped looking back and started looking ahead this year, with a rebrand to win back the Generation X audiences who crave edgier, serialized fare. "We needed to evolve. We wanted to be part of the conversation in the comedy world, like the drama world was in cable," said Keith Cox, evp, development and original programming. "We wanted to do shows that people talked about."

With its first series under the rebrand, Younger, TV Land is finally doing that. Debuting this spring, the show—about a 40-year-old woman who jump-starts her professional and personal life by pretending to be 26—heralded the network's new direction, while its title doubled as TV Land's mantra. Its median age of 49 was seven years younger than the network's prime-time average—its youngest ever for an original sitcom.

Hot in Cleveland ended its run on June 3.

Thanks to a grassroots marketing effort ("We called it #snowball because we knew people were going to like it, so we wanted to build momentum and push that snowball," said Kim Rosenblum, evp, creative and marketing) that helped amplify word of mouth via social media, Younger's ratings jumped 73 percent in adults 25-54 from premiere to the finale, and 118 percent in women 25-54. Now the network has moved on to Phase 2, rolling out a pair of offbeat new comedies: The Jim Gaffigan Show and Impastor.

The rebranding is familiar territory for Younger creator Darren Star, who said he "definitely wasn't thinking of TV Land" as an outlet for the show but relished the chance to help another network find itself, as he had previously done with Fox (Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place) and HBO (Sex and the City). "Those shows were not hits right out of the gate, but because the networks were inventing themselves, they needed to nurture those shows," said Star. "The show is defining the network, not vice versa."

When TV Land started in 1996, its core audience was baby boomers. And while the network has tweaked itself incrementally over the years, a rebrand "was honestly overdue. It was time to not just take baby steps," said Rosenblum. "It's not throwing back to a different era; it feels like it's in this moment."

(Those craving the old network identity can still watch TV Land Classic during the day, with repeats of shows like Gilligan's Island, Bonanza and, briefly, The Dukes of Hazzard. The network quickly pulled episodes of Dukes, just weeks after adding them to the lineup, in light of the Confederate flag backlash. The network said that early ratings had been poor, and no decision has been made as to whether Dukes will ever return.)

It's also an essential step to win back the 30- and 40-year-olds that have drifted away from the network. Last year, TV Land was ranked 24th in adults 25-54, a steep drop from 10th place a decade ago. While it will take some time to determine if its rebrand is a success with audiences and advertisers, so far, "it seems like they're doing it the right way," said Geraci.

Those early results have given Cox confidence the rebranding will pay off. "What I learned from Younger," he said, "is stick with it, keep pushing and audiences will find it."

This story first appeared in the July 20 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.