Inside Turner's Quest to Take on Broadcast
Conan, Cop Shows and Cost Controls All Part of Formula to Beat the Networks at Their Own Game
The crowd was supposed to be friendly. Conan O'Brien had warmed up the audience of about 2,000 sponsors, media buyers, Hollywood talent and press with his trademark barbed humor. Presenters had rehearsed their lines countless times for three days. The audience was to be dazzled by elaborate on-screen graphics developed by 3-D video mapping.
And yet at Turner Entertainment Networks' "upfront" presentation last May, Steve Koonin found himself apologizing to a restless throng of the very executives from whom Time Warner 's TNT and TBS cable outlets hoped to cajole millions of ad dollars.
The high-tech video went dead just as Mr. O'Brien was wrapping up his spiel. The late-night host, who had taken a red-eye to New York to help out, appeared irked in front of a crowd that included Turner CEO Phil Kent and Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes.
Memories were stirred of a legendary Fox upfront in 2006, an affair in a New York armory marked by an overly raunchy monologue from actor Brad Garrett, a rambling presentation by a Fox Sports exec and a public complaint from Irwin Gotlieb, overseer of WPP's Group M buying operation.
Then Mr. Koonin stepped in. He cracked a few jokes and threw himself at the mercy of the audience, helping to save the day.
"We tried to make an incredible visual presentation that , unfortunately, we just weren't able to execute, and to this day I can't tell you the precise cause," recalled the president of Turner Entertainment Networks.
Turner, which has pushed aggressively to compete with broadcast networks such as CBS and Fox by taking some of their castoffs, like Mr. O'Brien and college basketball, faces dilemmas that those media outlets typically face -- and not just glitzy upfront shows gone awry.
In the recent past, Turner has had to find a way to bolster lackluster ratings for Mr. O'Brien's daily late-night talk show; invest heavily in NCAA basketball as a way to attract viewers to its networks; examine the economics of critically acclaimed but ratings -challenged programs like "Southland"; and, in a move more reminiscent of spinoff-happy ABC, try to get fans of "The Closer" to cross over to "Major Crimes," a new show featuring much of the cast from the previous program.
Turner's fate is important to parent Time Warner . The company's TV networks (all except joint-venture CW transmitted via cable) are more stable than its movie operations, which can fluctuate widely, or its Time Inc. print properties, which have been buffeted by changes in technology and advertising. In the fourth quarter, Time Warner 's TV networks saw revenue grow 5%, to $3.5 billion, and operating income increase 26%, to $1.14 billion, making TV Time Warner 's most profitable asset.
At the center is Mr. Koonin, the former Coca-Cola marketing executive who helped oversee the soda giant's ad work with Hollywood talent agency CAA. He brings an outsiders' perspective to an insular industry and holds that TV networks and programs ought to follow consumer behavior, not the other way around.
"Most heads of networks are programmers, and I'm a businessperson who came up through the marketing ranks," Mr. Koonin said.
The strategy is to develop programming that advertisers think is higher-quality than normal for cable -- or even broadcast -- and use it to seek higher ad prices while leveraging the content for higher subscriber fees from distributors (which also represent a steadier income stream than advertising).
"These types of programs, whether it's March Madness or Conan, help drive our affiliate fees, our ratings , our reach and our relevancy," said David Levy, Turner's president-sales, distribution and sports. "Those things are important."
TNT and TBS brought in $2 billion in advertising in 2011, according to Kantar Media, (though the larger Turner unit comprises other cable outlets, including TruTV, Cartoon Network and CNN). CBS, in comparison, had more than $6.3 billion in ad revenue last year, Kantar said.
Turner portrays its programs as "broadcast replacement" but transmits them on cable networks that go after fans of comedy, drama or reality as opposed to a big network that must be all things to all people.
Other cable outlets have tried to emulate broadcast with varying results. NBC Universal's USA is a major force, though it can be argued that Turner takes risks with programming that tends to be more diverse and doesn't rely on a tried-and-true formula. AMC Networks' AMC has also made great strides, though the economic underpinnings of landmark programs such as "Mad Men" are fragile.
Turner, meanwhile, is taking on the broadcast outlets by stealing from their playbooks and asking for the same hefty ad outlays.
It is working? Depends on how you measure success. Overall ratings for TNT and TBS have depended largely in the recent past not on the networks' original programming but on the shows Turner buys from others. The purchase of CBS's "The Big Bang Theory" as a lead-in to "Conan" has helped TBS soar, but a lack of suitable "second-run" programming for drama-focused TNT has led to some noticeable ratings shortfalls at that network.
Even so, subscriber fees—a major revenue component for cable networks—have risen at both outlets. According to SNL Kagan, TBS got an average of 57 cents per subscriber last year, vs. 44 cents in 2007, and TNT got an average of $1.16, compared with 91 cents.
Turner will be even more enterprising in the weeks ahead.
"Strategically, we need to increase the amount of exclusive and/or original content to our viewer, and we're going to do so," said Michael Wright, exec VP-head of programming for TBS, TNT and Turner Classic Movies. In the hopper is a noir-style drama from Frank Darabont, the movie director who helped turn "The Walking Dead" into a hit for AMC.
But like CBS, NBC and Fox, Turner must figure out how to capture interest for these shows while keeping them affordable.
Most cable networks love the plaudits that come with convention-breaking programs such as "Southland" and "Men of a Certain Age." Yet Turner has kept a close eye on each program's economics. It even canceled "Men," a smart drama about the problems of guys on the downhill side of middle age, despite the critical acclaim and significant ad support from General Motors.
Axing the show was "arguably the hardest programming decision we've ever had to make," said Mr. Koonin. "It was planned to go three or four seasons, and then at the end of the second season, we just felt that while there were more stories to mine, there wasn't going to be an opportunity to grow the audience."
Gritty cop show "Southland" fares somewhat better with ratings , but after TNT picked up the program, which NBC had dumped, the sprawling cast was winnowed to four main characters. Producers were able "to make this work, and it's a great partnership," Mr. Koonin said.
The company has also become known for making strong pricing demands, according to ad buyers. When launching the new "Conan" talk show on TBS, Turner boldly demanded prices that were on par with those NBC and CBS got for the Jay Leno's "Tonight" and David Letterman's "Late Show." In some cases, TBS achieved its price only to have to issue make goods when Mr. O'Brien's show hit a ratings snag.
"We did have to take our estimates down to put them in line with what the viewership was," said Mr. Levy. But, he added, the "audience is a sought-after one"—young, concentrated and harder to find in other TV nooks and crannies. Marketers that advertised during Conan's first year returned for more, he said.
Turner has been borrowing elsewhere from broadcast, with Mr. Koonin and his team appearing to have a special fondness for elements from its heyday.
TNT has experimented with "movies of the week" and this summer will launch a revised "Dallas," the CBS soap hit of two decades ago, complete with appearances by stars Larry Hagman and Patrick Duffy. And Turner's upfront often puts actors offering stage banter about their programs, a practice the broadcast networks have all but eliminated.
Turner is merely making use of techniques that have proved successful for others, according to Mr. Koonin.
"We're more than happy to borrow a couple of good ideas," he said. "There are some really smart people who have done some really great things in broadcast television, and we have no pride of ownership. We're more than happy to build on something we have seen."
Turner's cable outlets are set to look even more like broadcast in the fairly near future. In 2016, Turner will broadcast the final championship games of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, an event that has for years been televised by and stoked great ratings for CBS. Under an arrangement that began in 2010, Turner and CBS share the costs of a 14-year rights package valued at $10.8 billion, and airing the final games could prove an important moment at the cable company.
Turner will most likely point to some of its plans at its next upfront, scheduled for the same day in mid-May that CBS will present. Last year, "we certainly made an impression," said Mr. Koonin. "This year, I think a lot of people will come to see if we can keep the train on the track."
And determine whether it's poised to accelerate.
TBS and TNT: The highlights
Jan. 1, 1970
Atlanta independent UHF Channel 17 (WJRJ) purchased and renamed WTCG (for Turner Communications Group).
Aug. 27, 1979
WTCG call letters changed to WTBS.
June 29, 1981
TBS invents "Turner Time ," starting programs at five and 35 minutes after the hour.
Jan. 30, 1982
TBS launches "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau."
July 5, 1986
The first Goodwill Games open in Moscow. TBS serves as the host broadcaster for the event, founded by R.E. Turner.
Sept. 8, 1986
Color Classics launches on TNT with the world premiere of the colorized version of "Yankee Doodle Dandy."
Oct. 3, 1988
TNT launches in 17 million cable-equipped homes with the first cable-exclusive telecast of "Gone With the Wind."
Dec. 21, 1988
TNT premieres its first original movie, an adaptation of "A Man for All Seasons" starring Charlton Heston, Vanessa Redgrave and John Gielgud. Mr. Heston also directed.
Sept. 16, 1990
"Captain Planet and the Planeteers," an animated program that reflects founder Ted Turner's environmental concerns, premieres on TBS.
March 1, 1993
TNT launches "MonsterVision," an evening marathon of cult, horror, science fiction and other kitschy movies.
August 15, 2000
TNT launches its first original series, "Bull," a Wall Street drama featuring Malik Yoba, Elizabeth Rohm and Stanley Tucci. It is canceled its first season.
June 12, 2001
"Witchblade," starring soon-to-be cult favorite Yancy Butler , premieres on TNT.
June 22 , 2004
TBS's first comedy reality series, "Outback Jack ," premieres with a group of pampered women trying to win the affections of a rugged outdoorsman while roughing it in the Australian wilderness.
June 13, 2005
TNT premieres its original series "The Closer," starring Kyra Sedgwick.
Nov. 27, 2006
TBS premieres its first original sitcom -- the partially improvised "10 Items or Less." The series runs three seasons.
Nov. 28, 2006
TBS's first fully scripted comedy series, "My Boys," premieres to critical acclaim. It runs for four seasons.
June 6, 2007
TBS premieres "Tyler Perry's House of Payne."
July 17, 2007
TBS premieres its first in-house production, "The Bill Engvall Show."
Nov. 9, 2009
TBS launches "Lopez Tonight," a late-night series hosted by George Lopez. The series marks late night's first Hispanic host.
Dec. 7, 2009
"Men of a Certain Age" debuts on TNT, marking the return of Ray Romano to series television. The series, co-starring Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher, is widely acclaimed by critics.
Jan. 12, 2010
"Southland" begins airing on TNT. The series was acquired by TNT from NBC, after the latter dropped the show citing its "dark" plotlines.
April 12, 2010
TBS announces that it will be the new home of late-night icon Conan O'Brien, whose new show, "Conan," will premiere in November 2010.
April 22 , 2010
CBS and Turner Sports announce a 14-year deal to air the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship on CBS, TNT, TBS and TruTV.
July 12, 2010
"Rizzoli & Isles" debuts, with Angie Harmon as police detective Jane Rizzoli and Sasha Alexander as medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles.