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A-list laffers enliven TBS lineup

Cabler yuks it up all the way to the bank with key demo

TBS was in the dumps after the 2002-03 season, dragged down by the loss of tens of thousands of adults 18-49.

The solution — shed old viewers and lure new ones to bring in more ad dollars — was obvious, but easier said than done.

But since one of the best ways to attract people in that demo is with reruns of A-list sitcoms, TBS was already halfway home.

Cheered on over the years by Ted Turner, TBS had regularly outbid its rivals for such popular comedies as “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Sex and the City.”

Armed also with a big inventory of theatrical comedies like “Legally Blonde,” “The Truman Show,” “Miss Congeniality” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” the network marshaled its resources and decided that on June 4, 2004, it would unveil a fresh on-air look, logo and the tagline “TBS: Very funny.”

A year later, “TBS’ ‘very funny’ strategy appears to be paying off, big time,” says Chuck Larsen, president of the media consultancy October Moon. In the past year (October to May), the media buyer Magna Global’s analysis of Nielsen indicates that the average age of TBS’ aud in primetime has dropped from 40.0 to 37.1, making the network younger than all the Big Four broadcast nets and more youthful than any of the other general-entertainment cable webs.

During that period, adds Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer of Turner Broadcasting, TBS’ primetime rating has shot up by 17% in adults 18-34 and climbed 10% in 18-49. The advent of more young viewers has begun filtering down to Madison Avenue. TBS’ ad revenues will grow by 3% in 2005, according to Kagan Research, but Nielsen momentum will catapult the projected dollars 8% to $594.6 million in 2006.

To keep young viewers in the fold, Steve Koonin, exec VP and chief operating officer of TBS and TNT, says he’s developing original comedies that will go for a similar audience as the reruns.

Starting production next month as a companion to “Sex and the City” is “Daisy Does America,” a comedy/reality half-hour featuring the British actress-comedian Daisy Donovan. She’ll ferret out “some of America’s most extreme characters and lifestyles” with her “ability to corner unsuspecting interview subjects with her tongue-in-cheek interviews.”

In other original series, TBS harvested some solid young-adult ratings with two cycles of the real-life takeoff on “Gilligan’s Island,” but the network will quit while it’s ahead: “Gilligan” won’t return for a third go-round. Pauly Shore’s “Minding the Store” premiered July 17 to only about 1.4 million total viewers, but Koonin says a million of those were 18-49s, making the hour highly salable.

TBS will go all out to buy the cable rights to the next high-demand off-network sitcom expected to enter the marketplace for pre-sale later this year, Warner Bros. Domestic’s “Two and a Half Men.”

The network’s main selling point is that in addition to the license fee TBS ponies up, Warner Bros. will pocket as much as $20 million a year more in barter ad revenues than it could get from any other cable net. Those extra dollars come from the cushion TBS will give “Two and a Half Men” by slotting it in a high-rated comedy block surrounded by such bellwethers as “Seinfeld,” “Raymond” and “Friends.”

No other cabler boasts a sitcom lineup like that. Beyond “Men,” however, the cupboard of future off-net sitcoms looks alarmingly bare.

As older shows start to show their wear and tear, Koonin realizes that TBS will eventually have to start commissioning scripted comedies — one of the riskiest and most expensive programming genres, with a failure rate that keeps Hollywood’s pharmacies overflowing with Prozac.

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