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Upfronts: TruTV To Spotlight Humor-Based Reality

To stand out, Turner outlet will use "comedic" game shows and an oddball auctioneer

Some of the most popular elements on YouTube are clips from favorite TV shows. If Marc Juris has his way, however, his Tru TV will take a click, as it were, from YouTube by launching more programs that remind viewers of the streaming-video service’s funniest shorts.

In Juris’s eyes, a better YouTube is a more controlled YouTube. Web surfers the world over have transformed videos about cute cats, accident-prone children and surprised prank victims into viral sensations simply by posting them on the Google-owned video-sharing site. Now Juris, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Time Warner’s Tru TV cabler, sees an opportunity to harness some of that zeitgeist – without going overboard on questionable content.

“There’s this huge cultural shift to capture real people doing real-life action,” said Juris. “That’s really what YouTube is. It celebrates the outrageous and the unique.”

Going forward, those elements will become more of the central mission of Tru TV, the cable network once known as CourtTV but devoted more to reality-based programming since Time Warner purchased the 50% of the outlet it didn’t own from Liberty Media in 2006 for about $735 million. Under a new plan, Tru aims to devote about half its schedule to a genre it calls “comedic reality,” which Juris defines as “looking at the comedic side of real life,” by the end of 2013.

Tru will unveil three original series as part of its next programming slate and commission seven different pilots and development deals, all used to capture what Juris calls “funseekers.” This audience niche enjoys suspenseful, edgy and irreverent humor, is split evenly between men and women, and has a median age of 35. The move toward depicting more antics that tickle the funny bone marks the first time since Time Warner’s Turner cable unit unveiled Tru in 2008 that the network has attemped to “sharpen the focus,” said Joe Hogan, executive vice president of Turner’s young adults ad sales.

One of three new series is “Panic Button,” in which contestants must journey through a haunted house that speaks to them. truTV has ordered 12 half-hour episodes, produced by Eleven Television. “Cash Dome Pawn” extends the network’s reach into the nation’s pawnbroker business (“Hardcore Pawn” is one of tru’s best-known programs). Tru has ordered six half-hour episodes from Endemol’s 51 Minds Entertainment LLC. And “Big Sam’s Kentucky Action” follows the sale of rare and outrageous items at Sammie’s Auction, a colorful auction house in Corbin, KY. TruTV has ordered six half-hour episodes from ITV Studios America in association with Leepson Bounds Entertainment.

Time Warner’s Turner unit has reason to give Tru TV some focus. The cabler currently gets 11 cents per subscriber from cable and other distributors, according to SNL Kagan. In comparison, Turner’s TNT and NBC Universal’s Bravo, both of which draw wider niches get $1.18 and 21 cents per subscriber, respectively. Most cable-network owners start off by tailoring content to aficionados of a particular topic, and then work gradually to broaden the outlet’s appeal.

The new focus may help the network secure additional ad support, says David Campanelli, senior vice president and director of national television at ad buyer Horizon Media. “There has been a content sensitivity to some fo the programs they’ve put up,” he said, noting that plans as Tru executives have described to him call for less “edge” and more of a “feel good” demeanor. “They weren’t serious content issues, but when you are looking at two networks within the same price range, and one’s got a little bit downscale product on air and the other doesn’t, you’re going to tend to to the other one.”

The ad buyer points to Tru’s recent acquisition of the ABC reality game show “Wipeout” as an indication of the direction in which it’s headed. While contestants on that program often get the wind socked out of them as they compete on an obstacle course, most of the show is in good fun. Tru “is not going to be Disney Channel by any means,”says Campanelli, but its programming should develop a tone that would appearl to a broader set of viewers.

That doesn’t mean tru TV’s “World’s Dumbest” series in its many iterations is going away, but the net’s development slate spotlights a growing reliance on games, pranks and hijinks. One program in development that Juris feels has a good chance is “Turbulence,” billed as “one truly outrageous game show in the sky.” Contestants must fly from one location to the next to solve a series of challenges. The program is produced by Howie Mandel’s Alevy Productions and FremantleMedia North America .

“Payback with Trevor Moore” allows a participant to sample a bit of that dish best served cold and is hosted by the comedian host. The pilot is produced by Funny or Die. “Laugh Truck” is another game program in which contestants ride in the back of a truck while completing tasks each time the vehicle comes to a stop. It’s produced by NorthSouth Productions, which also produces tru TV’s “Impractical Jokers.”

“Impractical Jokers,” “Upload with Shaquile O’Neal,” Hardcore Pawn: Chicago” and “Guiness World Records Gone Wild” have all been renewed.

Tru TV’s reality bent places it in competition with everyone from Spike to TLC to VH1, but Juris thinks the bet on “comedic reality” is a reasonable bet. “A lot of people are chasing the Honey Boo Boos of the world. That’s about getting their first,” he said. The focus on humor-tinged programming “is the place where we can have the most unique voice.”

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