NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When it made its debut on June 13, 2005, TNT's "The Closer" had several distinctions. It was the Time Warner-owned cable network's first original drama since sci-fi series "Witchblade" ended in 2002. It starred Kyra Sedgwick, a popular actress who, one might think, would seem more at home on the big screen. And it drew just more than 7 million viewers, making it something of an oddity: a cable show that attracted a broadcast-caliber audience.
These days, "The Closer" is the linchpin of something even bigger: the Turner entertainment channels' challenge to broadcasters including NBC, Fox and CBS. The company is expected to unveil three nights a week of original prime-time TNT programming, with the hopes of having a mostly original lineup Monday through Wednesday. Recently, sibling cable outlet TBS unveiled its intention to mount a new late-night talk show featuring comedian George Lopez, which would join the ranks of comedies such as "My Boys" and "Tyler Perry's House of Payne."
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"As compared to other networks, in particular broadcasters who are scaling back -- some might say tearing down the number of hours of their foundation, of their schedule -- we are continuing to build and invest," said Linda Yaccarino, exec VP-chief operating officer, Turner Entertainment ad sales/marketing and acquisitions.
Bold talk to be sure, and some ad-buying executives remain skeptical. "Are these shows on par with network programming? Hardly," said Don Seaman, VP-director of communications analysis at Havas's MPG. "Those 'premium' dramas on the cable networks are a different breed. They run on more of an 'acceptable minimum' of viewers model -- it's an end goal of good programming over large audiences." He added, "Smaller numbers are expected in cable because they don't try to be everything to everyone."
"The Closer" is by far TNT's best performer, with its first-run original episodes drawing an average of 6.83 million live-plus-same-day viewers between July 28, 2008, and Feb. 23, 2009, according to Nielsen. The first season of "Leverage," starring Timothy Hutton as a sort of modern-day Robin Hood, drew an average of 3.14 million. The second season of "Saving Grace," starring Holly Hunter as a troubled cop, drew an average of 3.64 million. In contrast, CBS's hit sitcom "Two and a Half Men" drew about 14.56 million viewers the week of March 30. (Of course, many of broadcast's lesser lights don't draw anywhere near these numbers. A recent episode of CW's "Gossip Girl" drew an average of 2.1 million viewers.)
Turner has aggressively promoted the programs. During last year's upfront, the unit sought a premium for a package it touted as a replacement for broadcast-TV inventory. The theory was that marketers would get ad time in the best of Turner's programs -- which could include "The Closer" and the Steven Bochco legal drama "Raising the Bar" but none of the lesser-performing slots in other dayparts and programs.
Like its broadcast rivals, who work with the understanding that 75% to 80% of new program launches fail, Turner is finding that launching a string of top performers is difficult. "Trust Me," a drama about advertising executives, drew an average of 1.53 million live-plus-same-day viewers in its first nine episodes, Nielsen said.
Not everything Turner launches will hit the mark, said Michael Wright, exec VP-head of programming for TBS, TNT and Turner Classic Movies. But while ratings are one measure of success, he said, they're not the only one, and Turner executives can afford to let some shows find their way if they are creating buzz and chatter within important audience demographics. "We're not patient to the point of being fools, but we do believe in these shows growing and the audience finding them," he said.
Along with new episodes of "Saving Grace," "Raising the Bar," "Leverage" and "The Closer," TNT will unveil "Dark Blue," an undercover-police drama from popular producer Jerry Bruckheimer; "HawthoRNe," a medical drama from the nurse's point of view starring Jada Pinkett Smith; and "Wedding Day," an unscripted series that follows real couples as they move toward a life milestone (helped by highfalutin wedding planners). The programs will be officially unveiled May 20 -- right smack in the midst of upfront presentations from broadcasters.
One media buyer said Turner should broaden its outlook, and realize its original shows could draw ad dollars from other venues, too. "I understand Turner's strategy of going after broadcast dollars and respect that that's the completion they want to compare themselves to and the competitive set they want to be in," said Shelley Watson, senior VP-director of entertainment at independent agency RPA. "At the same time, I don't think they're going to turn down money if it comes from print or newspapers or radio or anything else."