Loaded release schedule gives leverage to cabler

Planning to put as many as seven original hourlongs on the air in 2009 and expand its sked to as many as three nights a week of first-run shows, Turner Network Television’s 1050 Techwood Drive in Atlanta is arguably cable’s most active headquarters for production and development.

With the Steven Bochco-produced legal drama “Raising the Bar” set to return for a second season next summer, TNT has three established skeins going into 2009, including female-led copshows “The Closer” and “Saving Grace,” both set to resume in the first quarter.

On Dec. 7, the cabler will bow “Leverage,” which features Timothy Hutton playing a former insurance investigator on a Robin Hood-esque crusade. Dean Devlin is exec producing and helming.

January, meanwhile, will mark the bow of “Trust Me,” a drama centering on a Chicago ad agency starring Eric McCormack and Tom Cavanagh.

And then there are the pilots, five of them, all featuring big-name talent and all in various stages of production.

These include “Bunker Hill,” produced by and starring Donnie Wahlberg as a Boston DEA agent, with Jon Avnet helming and also producing; “Time Heals,” a hospital drama produced by and starring Jada Pinkett Smith; “Night and Day,” an ATF-focused drama from “24″ mastermind Joel Surnow; and “Men of a Certain Age,” an hourlong comedy produced by and starring Ray Romano.

Throw in a spinoff to “The Closer,” in development with writer-producer James Duff at the helm, and “Wedding Day,” a reality project that’s been picked up with Mark Burnett engaged, and Michael Wright, senior VP of the content creation group for Time Warner-owned Turner Networks, clearly has a lot to mull over between now and the start of the year. At that point, he says, one, or maybe even two of these new projects will be selected for series greenlight.

“We’re committed to expanding,” Wright says. “That means more original programming and more nights. As for what specific nights and what specific shows those will be, we won’t know until we get closer to the end of the year.”

When Turner unveiled its ambitious original programming expansion plans for its TNT platform at its upfront presentation last spring, advertisers seemed to buy in, delivering to the company some of the richest cost-per-impression increases in all of cable.

In fact, TNT was being pitched to ad buyers as being closer to a broadcast network than any cable channel, given the robust ratings for “The Closer” and the emerging breadth and depth of its originals slate.

Of course, between then and now, the broader economy has gotten a whole lot worse.

“Only someone who is really in denial would look at the landscape right now and say this has no impact on us,” Wright says. “But right now we’re still on track. Whether we get to a third night in ’09, I expect we can and we will.”

Happily for Turner, there’s no constraint that dictates TNT must expand to three nights a week with original shows from 8 to 11 p.m.

“It’s not like we’re a broadcast network where you have to have 22 hours of primetime programming a week,” Wright explains. “We’re building. We can make less or we can make more.”

Perhaps more challenging than the economy to TNT’s expansion plans is finding enough anchors to launch new shows.

The highest-rated original in basic cable’s short history of firstrun drama, “The Closer” spearheaded the launch of “Saving Grace” in the summer of 2007 before getting “Raising the Bar” off to a record-breaking launch (7.7 million viewers) this past Labor Day.

However, “The Closer” went on hiatus the following week, and “Bar’s” ratings fell precipitously, with competition from broadcast launches factoring in.

“The Closer” will return with original episodes in January, in time to help out with the launch of “Trust Me.” For its part, “Leverage’s” December premiere will lead out of the third installment of Turner’s “The Librarian” telepic franchise, which stars Noah Wyle and is exec produced by Devlin. From there, however, the skein will be leveraging ratings without the benefit of established original series support.

“We have to introduce ourselves on other nights and during other parts of the year, and that’s a challenge,” concedes Wright, who up until “Raising the Bar’s” September launch, had positioned both of TNT’s previous original preems in the summer months. “While we’ve been great in the summer, we’re making an effort to grow beyond that.”

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