Cabler eyes four nights of fresh programs without midseason breaks

Turner Broadcasting hopes to shape the future of TNT not only with a slew of fresh series but also with a new approach to scheduling.

At its Television Critics Assn. press tour sesh today, TNT will tout its plan to shift to a year-round skedding pattern for its original series, rather than focusing most of its firepower on the summer months. Michael Wright, prexy of TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies, also vows to do away with the practice of breaking a show’s season into two parts, something that has been an irritant to many viewers.

“That’s really the big story for us,” Wright told Variety, regarding the year-round scheduling. Wright said he also understands the frustration viewers feel when a show takes a months-long break between batches of episodes in a single season. It equates to stopping a show’s momentum and then trying to restart it again six months later. “I don’t like splitting up seasons. If we have 10-13 episodes, we won’t do that,” Wright said. “Only maybe for a show that has 15 or 20 episodes.”

Wright is invigorated over the plan to expand TNT’s original programming to four nights a week, Sunday through Wednesday. Friday and Saturdays will remain movie heavy, however, where ratings have been solid.

Wright is confident TNT has the goods to devote more nights to original skeins. Not only will he return hits such as “Falling Skies,” “Rizzoli and Isles” and “Major Crimes,” TNT’s latest scripted hour, the David E. Kelley hospital-set drama “Monday Mornings,” bows Feb. 4. Series is Kelley’s first effort for cable.

While “Monday Mornings” may have a broadcast sensibility, that clearly won’t be the case with TNT’s Frank Darabont series, tentatively titled “L.A. Noir.” The period crime drama, which won’t start shooting until summer and might get pushed back to a 2014 start date, will have a dark tone in the vein of “The Walking Dead,” the megahit that Darabont spearheaded for AMC.

TNT is likely to greenlight two or three pilots to series in 2013. The contenders include two procedurals: “King & Maxwell,” based on the characters created by author David Baldacci, and Jerry Bruckheimer-produced “Trooper,” a redo of a project originally developed for CBS, with Mira Sorvino. Wright might also order Michael Bay’s “The Last Ship” or “Legends,” with Sean Bean and based on a novel by Robert Littell.

TNT has had mixed success with serialized dramas: “Falling Skies” has been a ratings winner, but critically praised “Men of a Certain Age” was canceled in 2011. Another critical fave, contempo L.A. cop drama “Southland,” returns Feb. 13 after hovering on the renewal bubble.

TNT is looking for growth in 2013 after dropping 5% in total viewers last year compared to its 2011 showing, despite the crowds drawn by “Rizzoli and Isles” and “Falling Skies.” Numbers might have been worse if not for TNT’s sports entities, specifically the NBA. Pro basketball has long been a solid contributor in the year’s second and fourth quarters.

Fielding a reality hit remains a priority for TNT. It struck out last year with “The Great Escape,” which was not renewed. The Donnie Wahlberg-produced “Boston Police” debuts Feb. 27.

TNT’s sibling cabler, the comedy-focused TBS, is also betting again on the unscripted realm with three premieres in the first half of the year. “King of the Nerds” begins Jan. 17 while “Who Gets the Last Laugh” starts in spring and “Dean Cole’s Black Box” launches in summer. The big focus for TBS, however, is the relocation of “Cougar Town.” After two seasons on ABC, the Courteney Cox starrer bows Tuesday on TBS.

Wright doesn’t know if the laffer will draw the 5 million-plus viewers who watched it on ABC, but he believes it can obtain a “high quality and specific audience,” noting that a hit comedy can do a lot of “heavy lifting” for a network.

Just as important, Wright explained, TBS’ investment in “Cougar Town” should burnish the cabler’s image in the eyes of Hollywood’s creative community.

“I hope it sends a message to showrunners to think about taking their show to TBS,” he said.

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