Turner buying binge has studios smiling

Other nets grumble that co.'s buying tactics inflated prices

If the Hollywood movie studios held a secret ballot to vote on their favorite cable-network owner, there’d be no doubt about the result: Turner Broadcasting (TNT and TBS) would win in a landslide.

The binge buying of TBS/TNT has almost singlehandedly propped up the price of theatrical movies, despite a sluggish economy and some falloff in viewers.

“There’s no mystery behind our strategy,” says Jonathan Katz, executive veep of program planning and acquisition for the Turner entertainment networks. “Cable subscribers always put movies at the top of their list of favorite programming.”

TBS and TNT in combination have spent the past six years ponying up big bucks for theatrical movies in the first network window. But this summer, the two nets seemed to be embarked on a mission to corner the market in big-grossing theatricals, forking over more money to the major studios in the past four months than any other network by far, broadcast or cable.

Turner’s chief rivals USA and FX, the two other movie-dependent cable networks that consistently go after big-grossing theatricals in the network window, grumble behind the scenes that Turner’s aggressive buying tactics have artificially inflated movie prices.

Consistently outbid, USA and FX have had to rely even more heavily on theatricals from their movie-studio siblings Universal (USA) and Twentieth Century Fox (FX), while trying to outmaneuver Turner for pictures from other sources.

FX, for example, pulled off a blockbuster deal with Paramount last month that will not only deliver such recent winners as “The Sum of All Fears” and “Changing Lanes,” but later windows for previously sold titles like “Mission: Impossible 2” and “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.”

While wrapping deals this summer for such Universal pictures as “The Scorpion King,” “The Bourne Identity” and “About a Boy,” USA has also bought some Warner Bros. titles released last year, including “Training Day” and “Cats & Dogs.” Turner’s Katz says he’s felt no pressure to slow down from his profit-starved parent AOL Time Warner, whose stock price went into free fall this year. TNT and TBS are both well in the black, at least in part because many of their theatrical movies are harvesting solid ratings.

Kagan World Media says TBS will generate $546.5 million in advertising revenues this year, and TNT $499.4 million, putting them fifth and sixth overall among basic-cable networks.

Broadcast networks, on the other hand, have cut back drastically on their movie buying, and when they do take the plunge, it’s always in a shared window with cable, most often TNT/TBS.

The Fox Network landed two of the summer’s biggest grossers, “Spider-Man” and “Mr. Deeds,” but TBS and TNT, and their sibling broadcast net the WB, will all share in the runs. The buyers will end up slapping each title on a figurative conveyor belt throughout the contractual term, pulling the movies back and forth among the networks and swelling the license fee pocketed by Columbia Pictures TV Distribution, the distributor of both pictures.

ABC and Turner are partners on movies distributed to TV by DreamWorks as part of an overall output deal. The movies they’ll be sharing include “Minority Report,” “Road to Perdition” and “A Beautiful Mind.”

Turner also defied the conventional wisdom that “Signs,” distributed by Buena Vista TV, would go exclusively to BV’s sister networks ABC and ABC Family. Turner engineered a pre-emptive bid last week, and will end up as the cable partner with ABC.

By contrast, CBS is all over the place with cable partners for the movie rights it’s bought. It will share “The Bourne Identity” with USA, “The Sum of All Fears” and “Behind Enemy Lines” with FX and “The Panic Room” with Turner.

When they can mix and match buyers of their movies in such intriguing broadcast/cable combinations, the movie companies are all smiles.

But mention the call letters NBC, and studio executives reach for the Prozac. Blissfully uninterested in “Spider-Man” or “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones,” the Peacock — embracing series as the be-all-and-end-all — hasn’t bought a big-grossing movie title in months.

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