Turner adds more originals to mix

TNT, TBS starting to use own programming

It’s getting unfair. Having already created the most watched show in the history of cable with “The Closer,” TNT appears on the verge of another blockbuster with “Saving Grace.”

The spiritually minded procedural, in which hard-living cop Holly Hunter is visited by an angel after her car (possibly) strikes a pedestrian, pulled in 6.5 million viewers when it launched last week. It’s the third-highest debut in the history of cable.

But the success of “Grace” highlights the paradox that is Turner Broadcasting in the year 2007.

The division, thanks to its jointly managed crown jewels of TNT and TBS, is a juggernaut. Those two nets last year rated as the second- and sixth-highest earners in all of cable. Turner’s basic cable nets (which also include CNN, Cartoon Network and others) earned about $2 billion last year for Time Warner — a number that nearly equals the profit of Warner Bros. and Time Inc. combined.

TNT is envied by its rivals perhaps more than any other cable net. Though they mutter that the network waters down broadcast concepts, engages in relentless onscreen promotions and draws a mainly older audience, those rivals also quietly admit they wish they had the outsized numbers and profitmaking touch of the Atlanta cabler.

But even as it has climbed to the top of the heap, Turner has shown a caution at once shrewd and enigmatic.

TNT draws the second highest number of average viewers on cable — yet it currently has only one night of original programming and an uncommonly lean development slate.

And in an era of flashy original series across the dial, both TNT and TBS remain driven by reruns and acquired movies.

“They’re the 800-pound gorilla, but their strategy sometimes feels like the church mouse,” says one cable exec.

The net has found a set of formulas that, depending on whom you work for, is either admirably or maddeningly successful.

TNT takes established genres and gives them a quarter turn (“The Closer” is a legal procedural with an offbeat protagonist), then puts a name actor (Kyra Sedgwick) at its center.

TBS, meanwhile, takes on the comedies broadcast nets have abandoned, especially those that target defined audiences — African-Americans with “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” or the family-oriented “The Bill Engvall Show,” which was actually not originally pitched as a family sitcom but which Turner execs changed to fit that format.

And both nets neatly lead in from the acquired programming they’ve spent years snapping up. It’s a tack that differs significantly from competitors, which are a lot more likely to consider factors like audience and brand than their reruns.

“Our belief is you spend years building a strong foundation, and then you can start building on top of it,” Turner prexy Steve Koonin says. “You’re just now beginning to see that.”

On TBS, nearly all the sitcom reruns have an originals doppelganger: “Sex and the City” and “Friends” have Chicago urban-singles sitcom “My Boys”; “Everybody Loves Raymond” has the family-oriented “Engvall” and “Perry.” The net is also seeking an animated half-hour to match with cult-hit “Family Guy.”

“Engvall” creator Michael Leeson describes his show with a line that, while quippy, could also characterize the larger Turner strategy. “We didn’t want to try for originality because that never works on television,” jokes “The Cosby Show” creator of his new project. “We went for something that would be familiar, but also just surprising enough.”

Koonin, who learned a lot about appealing to broad auds as a marketing exec at Coca-Cola, is also trying to tiptoe down a more significant line: the one between cable and broadcast. TNT and TBS seek to combine the creator-friendly values of cable (“Grace” creator Nancy Miller notes that the smaller number of development execs and projects means a project won’t get lost in the shuffle) with the tonnage of broadcast nets.

Seven million viewers on a Monday night, after all, is enough to get a show renewed on broadcast.

“People who were saying that basic cable couldn’t do this were acting like there were three television sets in your living room — a network TV, a basic cable TV and a premium cable TV,” says “Closer” exec producer James Duff.

But if it’s able to pull in so many viewers, why not do more?

Partly it’s because conservatism is key to the nets’ success. Producing and marketing shows the way Turner does takes coin; Sedgwick makes network money for her work on “Closer” — a reported $250,000 per episode — and Turner is known to also shell out on a campaign.

And the net likes event programming — e.g., the tentpole Western “Into the West” — which needs to be spaced out.

Later this summer, it will air the Cold War Michael Keaton mini “The Company,” then wait a year before bowing the long-gestating DreamWorks adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Talisman,” a limited series that exec producers Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank say could pick up where the book leaves off if it goes to series.

But it’s a strategy that’s also puzzling, especially in an era when so many viewers are up for grabs and so many top-level creators want to work in cable.

Execs say they realize this and will begin to push out originals more quickly. “In the future, you’ll see originals as the lion’s share of our programming,” Koonin says.

TBS has a plan to stake out the 11 p.m. territory — where the main competish is local news — that Comedy Central and others have brilliantly pillaged. A sketch show from MAD TV vet Frank Caliendo will debut later this summer; others are in development.

Insiders say the net aims for as many as eight original comedies — half in primetime, half in latenight — in a cable environment where a comedy hit is often elusive.

TNT, too, is starting to swing the scales away from reruns to originals, where the glamour and ad money lie. Koonin tells Variety that TNT will open up a second night of primetime programming next summer and air at least four originals.

What that list will consist of has rivals guessing. “Closer” and “Talisman” are two; figure that “Grace,” if it keeps up its current velocity, will be a third.

Some other candidates:

  • Programming chief Michael Wright says he places a premium on family drama, hailing “Thirtysomething” as a great show the broadcast nets have mostly stopped trying to replicate. That suggests “Mrs. America,” about a woman juggling career and family, or “A.D.,” from the theatrical creators behind “Rudy,” could be the next greenlights.

  • After several star-driven shows, the net could go with celebrity creators. A William H. Macy-penned drama about a do-gooder thief and a Stephen Bochco legal drama are both in development, and one or both could end up on a future schedule.

  • Wright says he is itching to fill an action void in television, meaning that “Leverage,” a show from Dean Devlin about a team of crime fighters, could be on tap.

Critics like to call out TNT for its average age — 47 — and say that while 6 million or 7 million viewers for “Closer” or “Grace” is nice, with about 2 million viewers in adults 18-49, the net gets the same returns in that all-important demo as everyone else.

They also say that the net’s slugging percentage isn’t always as high as execs make it out to be, pointing out that two series last year, the paramedic drama “Saved” and crime thriller “Wanted,” both flopped.

And they sometimes grumble that the net relies too much on reruns for both revenue and scheduling, almost as though it’s a kind of cheating in today’s originals environment because it shies away from experimentation.

The truth is, though, the net is already experimenting in other ways.

Despite a reputation for avoiding serial shows that demand a weekly commitment, “Grace” has a high arc, while “My Boys” creator Betsy Thomas says suspense between episodes — and between seasons — is a priority.

“The better the cliffhanger, the more they’ll have to bring us back,” she says, only half-joking.

And the net is beginning to use it
s own original programming as a reliable lead-in — while “The Closer” fed off the success of “Law & Order,” “Grace” is now feeding off the success of “The Closer.”

“As we attempt to grow the audience, we’re going to have to take more chances; we’re just going to do it very carefully,” Wright says.

Turner execs say that if growth is essential, pacing is even more important. That, they argue, is what lets each show get the proper care and feeding and helps turn it into a hit in the first place.

“We’re happy to be the tortoise,” Koonin says. “The tortoise wins the race over time.”

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