‘Law’ practice translates into high drama

TNT sked mixes syndies, sports and originals

Pitching a primetime lineup is a lot more difficult than selling a soft drink.

Take it from a guy who’s done both: TNT chief Steve Koonin, who recently added oversight of sister cabler TBS Superstation to his duties.

“Television networks are the only brands that come in your home and can leave in a nanosecond because of the remote control,” says the onetime VP of consumer marketing at Coca-Cola. “You might review 50 brands of television in one night. You don’t bring home 50 brands of drinks in one night.”

Night in, night out, viewers are buying what TNT is selling. Its lineup includes original and theatrical movies; pro hoops and golf; NASCAR Winston Cup and Busch Series races; and a steady rerun diet of “ER,” “NYPD Blue” and “Law & Order.” The cable net is tops in several ratings categories, including adults 18-49 and adults 25-54.

Good mix

“It’s a good property,” says Bob Riordan, senior VP and managing director of national broadcast at Media Planning Group. “They’re enjoying success in the upfront marketplace right now (because of) a combination of their strong movie titles and their dramas.”

Good news for a 13-year-old cabler that isn’t shy about reminding viewers drama is at the top of their menu. On-air promos are on 24/7, and the AOL Time Warner unit takes out media ads such as “Can’t look; can’t look away” and “Hero comes out of coma; hero comes out of closet.”

“We’re like the wine steward of dramas,” says Koonin, who is in his third year running TNT. “We don’t necessarily grow the grapes, crush the grapes or bottle the grapes, but we sure as hell know drama. We’re able to select a great ‘Law & Order’ or create a special vintage of a ‘Door to Door.'” (Latter, a telepic about a salesman with cerebral palsy, earned William H. Macy a Screen Actors Guild honor.)

By growing its drama offerings, TNT has found ratings success by going where the competition isn’t. Viewers can take in up to 21 episodes of “Law & Order” and 10 “ER’s” a week, but they won’t find a single comedy, variety, talk- or gameshow.

What serious-minded TNT also lacks is a signature homegrown skein. FX has found ratings and kudo success with “The Shield,” USA has “Monk” and TLC is attracting auds with

“Trading Spaces.” But it’s a problem TNT doesn’t need to fix today since the cabler can count on the dependable “Law & Order,” according to Riordan.

“It’s hard for any cable network to break through. Once they break away and come up with a good premise (for a series), then they can do that well.”

In the meantime, TNT continues to invest in firstrun programming, spending upwards of $350 million through 2005 on made-for TV movies and minis.

In the works are a remake of Neil Simon’s “The Goodbye Girl”; a new take on the 1962 Jackie Gleason starrer “Gigot,” reteaming Macy with his “Door to Door” director Steven Schachter; and “The Librarian,” a possible telefilm franchise from producer Dean Devlin about a man who must protect a stash of sacred artifacts from the forces of evil.

Set in the weeks ahead are “Caesar” (June 29-30), an epic two-parter with Jeremy Sisto in the title role; “Second Nature” (June 22), with Alec Baldwin starring and exec producing; and “Prince Charming” (July 13), featuring Martin Short, Christina Applegate and Bernadette Peters.

Originals have been a worthwhile investment for TNT, bringing in viewers and kudos; it received 23 Emmy noms last year, a record for a basic cabler.

“With soft drinks you’ve got to create those thirst occasions, and make sure you’re top of mind when those thirst occasions happen,” Koonin says. “Here, it’s the same. It’s about managing your assets and taking advantage of viewing occasions, by making sure you’re top of mind when those viewing occasions happen.”