Network president praised as 'marketing genius'

Steve Koonin, president of the Turner Entertainment Networks, takes in stride his resemblance to Wayne Knight, the actor who played evil-minded postman Newman on “Seinfeld” — and he’s not above drawing attention to the comparison.

Standing onstage before a few hundred media buyers at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York last week to introduce Turner Entertainment’s upfront presentation, Koonin noted the company was taping the event for video streaming on the Internet in a number of cities.

Interrupting his Turner-is-wonderful spiel to address people watching the website live on their computers, Koonin said, “The digital compression can distort your picture, so please tune your sets now. Please focus on me.” After a delay for his instruction to be acted on, he said, with a wink, “I’m about 6-foot-1 or 6-foot-2 and weigh about 175 pounds. If I look squattier, that’s your computer, not me. So keep adjusting.”

“That’s the Steve I know,” says Jack Stahl, former president and chief operating officer of Coca-Cola and author of the 2007 volume “Lessons on Leadership.” “He takes his work seriously but doesn’t take himself seriously.”

Before he joined Turner as executive VP and general manager of TNT in February 2000, Koonin filled a number of big marketing jobs at Coca-Cola for 14 years.

The way Ben Deutsch, head of corporate communications for Coke, tells it, Koonin became something of a legend at the company. For example, to engineer a marketing partnership with NASCAR, Deutsch says, Koonin transformed Coke’s Atlanta parking garage into a simulated NASCAR track for the day of the presentation. The employees grumbled about finding another place to park, but NASCAR was suitably impressed, and the deal got done.

“Steve is a marketing genius,” says Scott McCune, Coke’s VP of integrated marketing. Koonin was point person on the deal Coke entered into with CAA under Mike Ovitz in the early ’90s for the successful “Always Coca-Cola” campaign. One of the spots famously featured animated polar bears on an ice flow watching the northern lights.

The CAA arrangement gave Koonin his first immersion in showbusiness from the inside, and he says he loved it.

So when Koonin got the Turner offer to bow out of Coke and run TNT, he didn’t hesitate, hellbent on proving that somebody with a marketing background could ride herd on a major cable network. (It also helped that, like Coke, Turner is based in Atlanta, where Koonin was born and raised, and educated at the U. of Georgia.)

At Turner, “Steve proved to be a born leader,” says Bob Levi, who worked with Koonin for two years before retiring in 2002 as president of worldwide planning & acquisition for the Turner Broadcasting Networks.

Levi says Koonin was the guiding force behind successfully turning TBS and TNT from general-entertainment networks with no identity to brands that schedule distinctive programming.

TNT unveiled its “We Know Drama” tagline in June 2001. A year after Turner added TBS to Koonin’s portfolio in April 2003, the “Very funny” logo emerged, centered on the advent of reruns of “Sex and the City” for a 15-month exclusive window on the network.

Even edited for basic cable, “Sex and the City,” along with such reruns as “Seinfeld” and “Friends,” represented a substantial leap from the “Mayberry RFD” repeats that had carried TBS through its early decades. Koonin’s “From Mayberry to Manhattan” campaign reflected TBS’ transformation, which drove the network’s median age in primetime to below 40, one of the youngest-skewing entertainment channels in basic cable.

What stands out to Levi is that Koonin was able to create genre networks with less than a 25% audience overlap between them and still keep both TNT and TBS among the five highest-rated ad-supported channels in cable TV.

But Koonin has presided over his fair share of series flops, particularly TNT’s one-season-and-out “Wanted,” “Saved” and “Heartland.” TBS would rather forget some reality-show failures, including “The Real Gilligan’s Island” and Pauly Shore’s “Minding the Store.”

Koonin is now embarking on the biggest challenge of his career: elevating TNT from a second-class cable citizen to a network that can dip into the same advertising-dollar pool as a broadcast network.

At its upfront presentation last week, Turner Networks unveiled that TNT and TBS have developed a batch of pilot scripts to be produced by, among others, George Clooney, Joel Surnow, Peter Guber, Jon Avnet, William H. Macy, Russell Simmons and Jerry Zucker.

Koonin told media buyers in New York last week that the momentum of TNT, TBS and Tru TV is aimed at helping erase the distinction between broadcast and cable TV.

Madison Avenue will put up resistance because it likes buying time on cable for big discounts compared with what it pays for broadcast TV. But Koonin is planning to schedule six hours of scripted originals over three nights on TNT, starting in 2010, hoping to harvest more money by making the shows available on other platforms such as video-on-demand, the Internet and digital wireless devices, including iPods, cell phones and portable media players.

“Steve is the opposite of timid,” Levi says, “and his focus groups and online surveys make him so confident that he usually ends up getting his way.”

Even though he’s a research maven, and treats marketing as more of a science than an art, Koonin acknowledges that all of the marketing in the world won’t turn a poorly produced series into a hit. As he puts it, “The old adage is still true: The play’s the thing.”

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