Esquire Network a 'Bravo' for Men? Only a Hit Will Decide That

NBCUniversal partnering with Hearst to bring the magazine's brand to the television screen.

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This week, The New York Times confirmed the rumors that NBCUniversal would be partnering with Hearst's Esquire magazine to relaunch the company's G4 channel as Esquire Network.

In a statement released by NBC, Adam Stocky, Esquire Network's general manager, described the target audience as "today's modern man" and "upscale, engaged, passionate." According to the statement, the channel will expand upon G4's focus on gaming and technology to include programming on "entertainment, food, fashion, women, humor, travel, competition, danger and more." In a letter, Hearst President David Carey said the Esquire print-television partnership would be similar to the one between Food Network Magazine and HGTV.

"They're right that there is a niche out there," says Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture and television at Syracuse University. Esquire magazine's perceived readership: middle-aged, educated, upper middle class men with a disposable income makes the brand attractive for television advertisers. "The idea is to deliver a premo demographic, but saying you are going to deliver that, and delivering that are two different things."

Indeed, Thompson has a simple formula for successful niche cable channels: "Get two hit programs and everything will fall into place." However, as the struggles of some heavily hyped cable ventures, like Oprah's OWN channel, show, it's easier said than done.

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Many successful cable niche stations were once something different, until, on the process of their evolution, they stumbled upon a hit show or two that cemented their identity. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, for instance, defined Bravo in a way that allowed it to become the flamboyant reality TV Mecca it is now. It's not entirely surprising then that Bonnie Hammer, the exec who manages Bravo, is also taking Esquire Network under her wing.

Already NBCUniversal has announced two original shows for the stations—a cooking show called Knife Fight and The Getaway, which sounds like an Amazing Race with celebrities.

It will also syndicate Party Down, once of Starz, and Parks and Recreation, the critic darling currently running on NBC—and somewhat of a surprising choice, as it focuses on a sunny, female small town bureaucrat … not exactly "danger and more."

"If you were to say me, there's going to be a new network for men, list the syndicated shows that first come to mind, Parks and Recreation would not be one of them," says Thompson. Of the original programming as of now described, he says, "There's nothing so far that jumps out that says, this is going to be a big hit"

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Perhaps the Parks and Recreation choice hints at the outside-the-box approach the Esquire/NBCUniversal team will be taking to break away from the typical "downscale" male-centric subject matter of sports, history, and action-orientated reality television. Trial and error, and taking risks has been the process of other niche based television—be it Court TV's evolution to True TV, or AMC redefining itself with the Mad Men.

The Esquire Network is not the first channel to describe itself as a certain demographic, and looking to other successful channels proves that creating a breakthrough hit will not only cement its success, it will crystallize its demographic identity in a way this week's press releases do not.

"In many ways it's kind of ludicrous to say BET [is] a 'network for African-Americans', or Lifetime [is] a 'network for women,' in that we are talking about categories that are so large," says Thompson. "To say a network for men—a 78-year-old grandfather, retired in Florida, has obviously got very different programming appetites than one of my 21-year-old students."

Thompson says that syndicated shows and reality television knock-offs, like the programming already announced, can make for a network's "bread butter." But to succeed Esquire Network will need a buzz-worthy, original hit that will bring viewers in the first place, and such a hit will decide which demographic—the 78-year-old grandfather or the 21 year-old student—those viewers will be.