Pioneering TNT Cable TV Ignites Mainstream

Acronym epitomizing something explosive was only the beginning

From the start, from its very name, TNT was designed to make a statement.

Sure, the Turner Broadcasting empire at the time included TBS, but that channel had evolved from its roots as an Atlanta UHF TV station that bulked up through the steroidal effect of “Superstation” satellite distribution to content-hungry cable operators. TNT, on the other hand, was the vision that Ted Turner — oracle of cable TV programmers — had for a new outlet that would compete head to head against the major broadcasters with original programming, sports and event fare.

An acronym epitomizing something explosive was only the beginning.

“I wanted it to be a major player and go after the highest-profile things you could have in TV — the Academy Awards and so forth,” Turner told Variety as he reflected on the 25th anniversary of TNT’s launch on Oct. 3, 1988. “We found a hell of a good name and we were off and running.”

A quarter-century later, TNT hasn’t disappointed its namesake. The channel routinely spars with USA Network for the mantle of most-watched general entertainment cabler while fielding a formidable lineup of original programming.

In 2014, TNT is slated for at least 12 original series spread across at least four nights. Its investment in high-end scripted and unscripted has grown annually, thanks to parent company Time Warner’s deep pockets.

Since 2000, the vision for TNT has been steered by Steve Koonin, prexy of Turner Entertainment Networks. Koonin made a 90-degree turn in his career when he joined Turner after working as a marketing exec for another bastion of Atlanta, Coca-Cola. As such, Koonin brought a brand manager’s approach to shaping TNT and other Turner outlets.

“I came in because Turner (execs) wanted to build brands,” Koonin says. “It was right at the moment when it was super-important for TV networks to have clear brands that differentiated them from the competition. We could see that was important because the multichannel universe was getting ready to explode.”

Koonin spearheaded the development of the “We Know Drama” brand that has defined TNT for more than a decade. It was born out of more than a year of intense market research and psychographic studies of what viewers flock to as they surf the TV dial.

At first, Koonin and Co. weren’t even sure if the word “drama” would be seen as a positive attribute for TNT. Needless to say, the research found a hunger for a channel that would be a destination for shows that “touched their hearts and minds,” as Koonin says.

The research push led to the delineation of TNT as the drama brand and TBS for comedy. TNT was no stranger to the form — it had long served up a roster of original telepics and miniseries from Westerns to thrillers to feel-good fare. And “Law & Order” reruns were a pillar of the schedule.

But the focus shifted to original series in an effort to draw a more steady, recurring viewership than offered by the event movies. This move was a dream for Michael Wright — now president of programming for TNT, TBS and TCM — who joined TNT in 2002 to supervise original movies. He recalls presenting a five-year plan to Koonin and Turner Broadcasting boss Phil Kent in 2003 that called for the development of three pilots, with the goal of having an original series to pair with “Law & Order” reruns by 2005.

The initial batch of pilots included “The Closer” and “Saving Grace,” both of which made it to series. It took a lot of cajoling and many hours in the car for Wright, driving to studio lots and meetings with producers, to find the right mix for the inaugural slate. The approach to development was influenced by the procedural sturdiness of “Law & Order,” natch, as well as by the type of theatrical movies that performed well for TNT on the weekends, notably popcorn fare from helmers such as Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Ron Howard.

“Our notion was, ‘Fish where the fish are,’” Wright says. “We had a consistent and loyal audience for procedurals, so it made sense to focus on that space. The most important thing for me was that these first shows set the tone for the brand we wanted to be.”

Kyra Sedgwick saying yes to playing a tough LAPD detective in “Closer,” created by James Duff, went a long way toward legitimizing TNT’s efforts in the eyes of the creative community. Wright’s pounding of the development pavement also yielded an ambitious idea for a six-hour Western miniseries with Spielberg’s DreamWorks TV. Although they were looking to move away from the oaters that had previously defined TNT, Spielberg’s obvious passion for the project, “Into the West,” made it impossible to pass up, Wright recalls.

Koonin had the inspiration to trumpet TNT’s new direction with major fanfare by launching “Into the West” and “The Closer” in a four-day burst in June 2005 when the cabler was also carrying highly rated NBA semi-finals day period. “Closer” premiered to 7 million viewers, which blew away internal expectations and remains a benchmark for basic cable preems. It set a TNT template for smart-and-sleek series with broad-based appeal. (“The Wire,” it was not.)

The chance to be part of a new iteration of TNT was intriguing for “Closer” creator-exec producer James Duff.

“They had built this amazing autobahn — a highway that ran through all of America. But they didn’t have any new cars on it. They told me ‘We want you to drive the first new car on this highway,’ ” Duff recalls. “I made a very serious effort to drive as well as possible.”

Duff praises Wright and Koonin for their “transparency” as executives. “They always tell you the business aspects of why they make certain decisions,” he says.

Procedurals remain a constant, but TNT has also focused on diversifying from character-driven dramedies (“Men of a Certain Age,” “Memphis Beat”) to grittier crime stories (“Southland,” “Dark Blue”), sci-fi (“Falling Skies”), unabashed sudsers (“Dallas”) and upcoming period piece “Mob City,” from Frank Darabont.

Not everything has worked, of course, but Wright sees a bigger danger in letting the sked get stale.

“You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket, because God help you if the basket breaks,” he says.

TNT’s focus will continue to be on beefing up its year-round primetime lineup — particularly expanding into the unscripted arena — and achieving parity from an advertising dollar perspective with the broadcasters. TNT and TBS were the first cablers to crash broadcasters’ upfront party in 2008, when Koonin broke away from the cable pack and held a presentation in the middle of the week previously reserved for the Big Four and CW presentations.

Koonin and Wright are quick to give credit for TNT’s maturation into the primetime player of Ted Turner’s dreams to the creative talent behind its marquee programs.

“The quality of the talent we’ve been able to bring with such consistency is one of the things we’re very proud of,” Koonin says. “We did the skeletal work of building the brand and marketing and promoting our shows, but without the great talent to bring those shows to life, we wouldn’t have the complete package.”

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