The Reinvention of Style

To get a sense of their pecking order, consider the three core networks in NBC Universal’s Women and Lifestyle Entertainment Networks division as characters on the ’80s Peacock sitcom The Facts of Life. If Bravo is the wealthy, haughty Blair Warner and Oxygen the often bellicose Jo Polniaczek, then newcomer Style Network is Tootie, the Eastland School’s scrappy upstart.

Two months into the grand experiment that is the Comcast-NBCU merger, Style is already taking on some attributes of its new dormmates. The 12-year-old niche network is not only prepping its first major New York upfront event—a breakfast on April 12 in the penthouse of the Hudson Hotel—but is adopting 30 Rock’s signature research practices.

As is SOP under unit chief Lauren Zalaznick, Style is putting its target demo under the socioeconomic microscope. Tuesday’s upfront huddle will focus on a group of consumers the network characterizes as “Shoptimists,” meant to evoke a certain kind of woman between the age of 18 and 49 who is not only a confirmed shopping enthusiast, but a trusted brand evangelist.

While not necessarily profligate in her spending, a Style viewer ostensibly gets a serotonergic boost when spluging on a handbag or a new pair of shoes; moreover, her fashion sense makes her something of a style guru among her peer group.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because Style has borrowed heavily from the Bravo playbook. Four years ago, Bravo introduced media buyers to the “Affluencers,” the network’s catchall designation for the free-spending trendsetters who make up its core audience. A year later, Oxygen trotted out “Generation O,” a clutch of young “trenders, spenders and recommenders.”

Foregoing some of the more overt marketing frippery, Style president Salaam Coleman Smith explains that the net’s target viewer is valued for the way she consumes entertainment programming. “She doesn’t view television as a form of escapism,” Coleman Smith said.

“She’s coming to us to get ideas.”

This distinction is a function of what for lack of a better word can be called Style’s overarching “theme.” At heart, most of the network’s original series are concerned with reinvention, whether it’s an examination of a Texas woman’s mortal battle with obesity (at her peak, the star of Ruby weighed 716 pounds) or the ongoing chronicle of E! News anchor Giuliana Rancic’s struggle to conceive.

“Everyone has some aspect of her life that she’d like to change,” said Coleman Smith.

If there’s no quick path to transcendence, shopping makes for a nifty shortcut to happiness.

“Women buy themselves things to keep them going,” says Zalaznick, who serves as president of the women and lifestyle unit. “It can be a small indulgence, something as unremarkable as a four-dollar latte.”

Of course, Style isn’t merely in the business of pushing specialty coffee beverages. There are approximately 156 million women in the U.S. and every year they spend more than $4 trillion. Women represent 85 percent of all consumer transactions, ranging from quotidian buys to big-ticket items like cars and vacations.

If Style’s message is to resonate in the upfront bazaar, it will have to build up its deliveries. Per Nielsen, Style averaged 161,000 total viewers in prime last year, of which 63,000 were women 18-49. Per industry estimates, the net in 2010 took in around $86 million in ad sales revenue.

“Some of the original programming has resounded with viewers, but we’ll need to invest in more content to really break through,” Zalaznick said, noting that some Style series dramatically over-index in the nightly ratings. (For example, the Jan. 30 finale of Jerseylicious drew 928,000 viewers, six times the net’s average nightly draw.)

“It will take some time to parse, but Style is definitely heading in the right direction,” she said.