TV Upfront

Turner Upfronts Diary: In Pitch to Advertisers, Network Group Says It'll Have Fewer Ads to Sell

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Shaquille O'Neal of 'Inside the NBA' on TNT and Conan O'Brien of TBS's 'CONAN' at the Turner Upfront 2017 show at The Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York
Shaquille O'Neal of 'Inside the NBA' on TNT and Conan O'Brien of TBS's 'CONAN' at the Turner Upfront 2017 show at The Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Advertisers looking to get in on the new batch of series that are set to launch on TNT this year should probably get Donna Speciale on the phone ASAP, because the commercial inventory in those shows is going to be in short supply.

Speaking to media buyers and marketers Wednesday at Turner's upfront presentation, chief creative officer Kevin Reilly said the upcoming TNT period dramas "Will" and "The Alienist" would feature significantly reduced ad loads. Speciale and the rest of the Turner sales team believe that eliminating clutter creates a more viewer-friendly commercial environment, which in turn helps boost C3 ratings as well as brand recall.

"We've been moving as though our lives depended on it, because in this environment, if you're not ahead of the wave, you're dead in the water," Reilly said.

Reilly screened a two-and-a-half-minute trailer for "The Alienist," a serial-killer drama set in New York in 1896. Based on the 1994 best-seller by Caleb Carr, the show will debut later this year.

Having already experimented with a reduced-ad format with its truTV primetime lineup, Turner last year began kicking the tires on the initiative in select TNT drama series. For example, as part of a limited trial of the initiative, Turner slashed the national commercial load in the program "Good Behavior" from 13 to five minutes, which coincided with a 9% lift in the show's C3 deliveries.

The results for the truTV spot-load experiment are more comprehensive; as of the end of the first quarter of 2017, the network had aired 80 hours of programming with reduced commercial loads. Since truTV began offering the no-clutter format back in October, its C3 ratings are up 17%.

One client who has bought time in the streamlined truTV shows said that while it is encouraged by the early results, there isn't enough data to support any sweeping conclusions about the effectiveness of the reduced-ad format.

As it happens, Turner's gambit marks the second time a Reilly-affiliated network group has tried to do battle with commercial bloat. Back in May 2008, when Reilly was marking his first year as Fox's entertainment president, the broadcaster pitched advertisers on "Remote-Free TV," a concept that never really got off the ground. After slashing ad time in "Fringe" and "Dollhouse," Fox went into the market asking for as much as a 40% premium on the shows' available spots. Buyers balked and the idea was shelved.

Under ad sales president Speciale, Turner has been one of the most proactive programmers in terms of its commitment to staying a step ahead of a tumultuous marketplace. The whiplash-paced changes in how viewers access content and the ease with which consumers can now sidestep advertising has lent a sense of urgency to the TV business.

"We are doing our part. Now it's now time for you to do yours," Speciale told the crowd at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. "Break out of your historical behaviors. Reinvent and push this industry forward. These are not choices, they are imperatives."

In addition to the business at hand, Turner peppered its 90-minute presentation with guest appearances from the likes of Conan O'Brien, Shaquille O'Neal, Samantha Bee, Anderson Cooper, James Corden and Anthony Bourdain. O'Brien announced that he had just put a bow on a four-year extension with TBS. Corden is executive producer on "Drop the Mic," a celebrity rap battle competition on TBS.

Turner also used its presentation to tease the upcoming TBS comedy "Miracle Workers," starring Daniel Radcliffe and Owen Wilson; the Tracy Morgan vehicle "The Last O.G." and a stack of new projects on TNT, truTV, Adult Swim and Cartoon Network.

While much of the Turner show was given over to comedy bits, perhaps the most striking moment arrived when a phalanx of CNN anchors took the stage as the amplified voices of Donald Trump, Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway accused the network of being a purveyor of "fake news."

Cooper, Jake Tapper, Erin Burnett and other CNN anchors chimed in to refute the president and his mouthpieces' claims. "Now more than ever, our mission is clear: to find the truth, check the facts, report the story and hold people of power accountable," Cooper said.

Tapper's riposte had a little more bite to it. "Politicians lie," he said. "They have staffs and allies who lie and spin and sometimes try to confuse the public on what's real and what's fake. The press needs to be there and be worthy of the amendment that protects our work."

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