TNT cuts its losses with ‘Witchblade’

Show helped cabler build ratings, reputation

Much like the sword wielded in “Witchblade,” the cancellation of the TNT drama series may turn out to be both good and bad news for the basic cable network.

The signature drama, which went on temporary hiatus this year while its star Yancy Butler underwent alcohol rehab, did not snag a renewal, TNT confirmed last week.

The “bad news,” so to speak, is the fact that TNT will have to go without its most successful original series to date.

It will do so at a time when such rival general entertainment cablers as USA Network, FX and Lifetime Television reap the joy of their new hit dramas.

Digesting the loss could further prove troublesome, because the show’s success was so sweet.

A winning drama on TNT was a long time in coming, as the cabler had a tricky time launching scripted series in recent years, most notably “Breaking News,” which the network wrote off before airing any episodes.

“Bull” was canceled early in its run, and in the 1990s, “Babylon 5” and “The New Adventures of Robin Hood” also disappointed.

But “Witchblade” broke through. With the full promotional push from TNT, it consistently earned north of a 2.0 cable rating in TNT’s universe during both its first season, as well as the second season, which wrapped in August.

However, it’s the fact that “Witchblade” did work for two seasons that represents the “good news” for TNT.

Steve Koonin, TNT’s exec VP-general manager, says the decision was made in the hopes of going out with a bang, after meeting four major goals for the project.

“Our goals were finished with flying colors,” he says, “and we wanted to keep it that way.”

TNT hoped that “Witchblade” would be advertiser- and cable operator-friendly, a show that differentiated the network from its competitors, a ratings builder, and a show that laid groundwork for the net to be in the summer series biz, Koonin says.

“We just felt to stretch it to a third year could hurt some of those areas,” Koonin says.

Insiders say that the production stumbles related to Butler’s health likely played a part in the net’s lack of confidence in season three. However, that situation may simply have made easier a tough-but-necessary call to cancel.

In fact, observers say wrapping up “Witchblade” the way TNT did might have positioned the net, which is still honing its “We Know Drama” brand, better than ever to succeed with future series that might be an even better fit for the image it’s trying to project.

The series proved the strategy of spinning a series off of a two-hour telepic, and TNT is now committed to returning to the model, Koonin says.

“We are evolving our identity as the leader in drama and continue looking for other shows we can launch in a similar way,” he says.

The move could mark a sort of clearing of the decks, says cable consultant Ray Solley.

“You can clean things up, shake things up, then jump back in with as many feet as you can,” adds Solley, who in a previous post at William Morris Agency, was one of the reps for “Witchblade” producer Top Cow Prods. at the time the project was set up at TNT.

(Top Cow and Halsted Pictures produced “Witchblade” in association with Warner Bros. Television.)

“In cable, you have to always be thinking whether after a couple of years you’ve gotten as much branding power out of a project as you can,” Solley says. “If you have, the last thing you want to do is to keep it on the air. . . . MSOs and viewers alike want to know what you’re doing new for them.”

“Witchblade” for a moment in time helped create a brand and drew certain eyeballs and advertisers in a way that was incredibly efficient, Solley says.

The value of a series does not grow with time on cable the way it does in broadcast, where the accumulation of episodes gets it closer to the potential riches of syndication.

He adds: “There have never really been any huge hits going out of cable into syndication, so there’s no model saying keep ‘Witchblade’ on two more seasons and you will have a mint to make in syndication.”

Programming consultant Lynne Buening says TNT has pretty close to the ideal platform for originals, with its mighty lineup of sports rights, like NBA games and NASCAR, during which it can promote its fare.

TNT also has launchpads primed in the form of such off-network series as “Law & Order” and “X-Files.”

“These guys are pros, and I will be surprised if they’re not back soon with something as good, if not better,” Buening says.