TNT's New Promos Have Lots of Drama But Just a Little Network Name

Genre Gets Top Billing as Network Works to Avoid 'Alphabet Soup'

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What's in a TV network's name? Perhaps random letters shouldn't be among the ingredients.

There's so much drama at Time Warner 's TNT these days that executives have opted to run promos touting that genre more than they do the name of the network. New promos that have recently come on air spell out the word "DRAMA" in big letters, and use a shrunken version of the network's venerable logo -- a circle with "TNT" inside of it -- in a way that could make viewers think the outlet is now named after its programming.

"We're using words that consumers speak and relate to in their everyday lives," said Jeff Gregor, exec VP-chief marketing officer of TNT and TBS.

TNT isn't abandoning its letters, nor is it dropping its slogan, "We Know Drama," which it has been using since 2001. What it is doing, however, is raising the notion that typical cable-network names actually mean very little to the viewers who have their hands poised above fast-forward or channel-changing buttons on the remote control.

Yes, of course, it's hard to dispute the theory that couch potatoes know exactly what they are getting when they turn to Food Network or Smithsonian Channel. But when it comes to cable's biggest, broadest-reaching networks, the outlets' monikers do little to convey what types of programs they show.

Is NBC Universal's USA a network devoted to all things Americana? Not unless you think Piper Perabo playing a multilingual CIA agent evokes a modern-day Betsy Ross. Is News Corp.'s FX focused on the behind-the-scenes technical ideas that make blockbuster movies look so good, or does the name remind one of the company's Fox network? Does Discovery Communications' TLC bring to mind any of the assorted reality programs for which that channel is best known? (TLC was once known as The Learning Channel, but its programming mission has veered sharply away from that in recent years.)

"Once you start reaching broad-based audiences, your name becomes less important than the programming you show," said Larry Gerbrandt, a longtime media-industry analyst who is a principal at Media Valuation Partners. "TNT matters far less than the programs TNT carries."

Other cable networks may have already gotten the idea. NBC Universal has a small cable network called "Chiller," that focuses on horror, and another one called "Cloo" that centers on mystery (though the spelling of the names, much like sister network SyFy, leaves some wiggle room). And there are other cable outlets, such as Scripps Networks' Cooking Channel, that leave little to the imagination.

Nonetheless, many networks still seem to be going with names that sound like old TV-station call letters (TBS's precursor was WTCG in Atlanta) or perhaps try to ape the big broadcast networks' three-letter names. But the letters may mean more to the networks' owners than their viewers.

"It's kind of rough when you have those letters," said John V. Allen, a branding consultant who runs Highbridge Consulting in Clinton, Conn. "It's all alphabet soup" to viewers, he said.

Drama's promotion in TNT's branding strategy comes after the channel has spent the last several years ramping up production of original programs, rather than relying solely on second-run programs acquired from broadcast networks (though those remain important to the operation, as anyone who enjoys an old episode of "Law & Order" can tell you). After introducing "The Closer" in 2005 and "Rizzoli & Isles" in 2010, network executives have recently described to ad buyers a coming slate of programs that focuses on people who have a "popcorn mindset" and picture themselves as "armchair detectives," "action/adventure seekers," "prime-time soap fans" or "competition junkies."

The network has ambitious, albeit risky, plans for the months ahead, including a big-budget remake of the popular CBS drama "Dallas" (complete Larry Hagman and Patrick Duffy reprising their roles as J.R. and Bobby Ewing, respectively) and a spin-off of its long-running "The Closer" called "Major Crimes." The network has also commissioned a pilot, "L.A. Noir," about 1950s Los Angeles crimestoppers, that has the backing of Frank Darabont, the "Shawshank Redemption" director whose "Walking Dead" has become a hit for AMC.

TNT has been slowly allowing some of its "Drama" promos to run on air in recent weeks, with a "full arsenal" set to launch April 2, said Mr. Gregor, along with a redesigned website. Executives at TNT will be testing different ways to link seeing the giant "drama" on screen back to the network itself, he said. Adjustments to the TNT logo that accompanies the "drama" can be rolled out on the fly. The logo is likely to appear in different colors, according to the programs it accompanies, Mr. Gregor said.

TNT has faced ratings challenges over the last year, though the marketing initiative is not being done in reaction to that , a network spokeswoman said. The network has cited a lack of solid programs available in recent years to acquire for "aftermarket" runs on TNT. But reruns of CBS's "The Mentalist" are now on TNT, and CBS's "Hawaii Five-0"and ABC's "Castle" are set to join it.

Even so, first-quarter performance at the network has not been encouraging, said Nomura Securities analyst Michael Nathanson in a recent research note. TNT is among a number of top-tier cable networks that "have put up surprisingly weaker ratings than we would have ever imagined," the analyst said.

No matter what the ratings climate, TNT may always need to work a little harder than others to make sure viewers understand what it has to offer, said Mr. Gregor. "The letters connote explosions, and certainly, there can be those people who interpret TNT that way," he added.

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