Network aims for equal advertising prices

Time Warner chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes has taken to calling the company’s cable networks “broadcast replacements.”

And at the company’s Atlanta-based cable conglom, Turner Networks, the push is on to get the same advertising prices that the broadcast webs do.

The man charged with achieving this objective is former Coca-Cola pitchman Steve Koonin. Under the Turner entertainment prexy’s watch, the division’s channels — most notably, TNT — have embarked on an ambitious quest to achieve broadcast parity.

And just like last year, Koonin and his team will deliver their upfront presentation on the same day CBS does. The message to advertisers will be the same, too: TNT is more like a broadcast network than a cable channel.

“Our problem from a business standpoint is that we’re not compensated as well as the broadcast networks are,” Koonin says. “And we can’t build a business (that is priced as well) by competing against the History Channel and the Food Network.”

It still has a ways to go in reaching ratings parity with the broadcasters, though. TNT, which typically ranks second or third among cablers, has averaged about 2.5 million viewers so far in 2009, compared with more than 10 million for leaders CBS and Fox.

For Koonin and Turner, competing head-on with broadcasters has entailed an ambitious expansion of TNT’s original drama series slate, which now features some of the best known onscreen and offscreen talent in the biz.

In fact, the network plans to expand to three nights a week of original programming this year, with series development being emphasized and minis and telepics on the back burner for now.

Having just successfully launched “Leverage,” a Dean Devlin-produced series starring Timothy Hutton, TNT is prepping the premieres of Jada Pinkett Smith medical drama “Time Heals” and crime show “The Line,” produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and starring Dylan McDermott.

A Mark Burnett reality series is also slated for later next year, and Ray Romano’s darker-than-“Raymond” midlife-themed skein is on the way for 2010.

As the broadcast networks deliver ever more notes to series producers, and NBC exits the 10 o’clock drama biz altogether, Turner has become a top destination for big-name hourlong talent, both in front of and behind the camera.

“They have a really good management team over there,” Bruckheimer notes. “It’s about their relationships with talent.”

Adds Devlin: “This has been the most creatively interesting relationship I’ve had with an employer… They don’t bet on a lot of horses, but when they do bet on a horse, they let the horse run.”

Launched in 1988, TNT spent the 1990s as a top cable dudes destination, featuring the now defunct World Championship Wrestling, “Godzilla” marathons, late-night B-movie showcase “MonsterVision” and, for a while, NFL games.

The network occasionally dabbled in original series, such as the low-budget syndie action-hourish “WitchBlade,” as well as historical multi-parters favored by founder Ted Turner, such as 1996’s “Andersonville.”

TNT didn’t get serious about original programming until marketing/branding guru Koonin took over in 2001 and recast the network with a catchy “We know drama” slogan.

At the time, that catchphrase mainly emphasized off-net acquisitions including “Law & Order,” “NYPD Blue,” “ER” and “Judging Amy,” but the decision had already been made to invest in new series.

Of course, when your first-season series budgets are only about 75% to 80% of what a broadcast network would offer, the kind of talent destination that Koonin and his team ultimately built doesn’t coalesce overnight. Word has to get around that you’re easy to work with first.

In 2003, the L.A.-based Michael Wright, who is now exec VP and head of original programming for Turner channels TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies, had to drive all over Hollywood, looking for a studio willing to make an original drama for a basic cable network.

“I occasionally got the polite no,” says Wright, who finally had to turn to the Time Warner corporate family to get something done, enlisting Peter Roth, head of Time Warner sibling Warner Bros. TV.

That led to a meeting with producers James Duff, Michael Robin and Greer Shephard, who were in the midst of putting the short-lived procedural “The D.A.” on ABC.

A bit fed up with all the notes they were getting at the Alphabet, the three producers were looking to do their work in peace, hopefully at a place that had some clarity of vision. They’d take a pay cut for that.

Meanwhile, Wright, a former CBS movies and minis topper, was espousing a philosophy of limited note giving.

“If you’ve chosen (producers) correctly, you know they’re going to write in a voice that fits your brand and your audience,” he says. “You don’t have to tell them how to write.”

Turner also knew exactly what it wanted — an original procedural drama that could lead out of “Law & Order” reruns Monday nights at 9.

Out of that meeting came “The Closer,” which cast Kyra Sedgwick in the role of a down-to-earth Atlanta homicide detective trying to make a go of it in Los Angeles.

Koonin’s team had an original series hit, with “The Closer” generating big numbers right out of its summer 2005 bow and Sedgwick winning a Golden Globe in 2007.

Last summer, the series once again ranked as the top-rated show on ad-supported cable, averaging 8.5 million viewers. Running against broadcast competish in January and February, it ebbed a bit, averaging a total aud of about 5.2 million — not the 18 million-sized viewership enjoyed by the top CBS dramas, but not your usual under-2 million cable-sized audience, either.

“The Closer” has been a promotional platform for other TNT originals ever since.

Perhaps just as importantly, Duff, Shephard and Robin became useful allies in Turner’s quest to draw more writing and acting talent.

“They went out into the creative community and said, ‘This is the best relationship we’ve ever had,'” Wright explains.

Devlin, in addition to creating Timothy Hutton starrer “Leverage” for TNT, has also produced and directed the three-part “Librarian” telepic franchise starring Noah Wyle for the network. He says his production company has been completely transformed by what he describes as a simple, direct relationship with Turner.

Working as an exec producer on the short-lived “Visitor” for Fox a dozen years ago, Devlin describes a “difficult” experience of “trying to please a lot of masters and listen to a lot of voices that needed to be heard.”

But both “Leverage” and the “Librarian” are deficit financed by Dean Devlin Prods., which acts as its own studio, licensing its shows for domestic cable to TNT, then distributing them itself on international television, and through aftermarket channels, including DVD sales via Sony and downloads by way of iTunes.

No studio is involved. And Wright and his team give Devlin and his crew input, but not too much.

“We’ve been able to stay independent since 2004, and our partnership with TNT is at the center of that,” Devlin explains.

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