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10 Things We Learned From the Turner Upfront

Time Warner’s Turner TV unit reached out to Madison Avenue with a unique proposition Wednesday morning in midtown Manhattan: Work with us to run fewer commercials – and consider paying more for them.

It wasn’t a shell game that not too long ago might have been found a few blocks from Madison Square Garden, but rather part of the new thinking about how to make TV work economically at a time when viewer behavior is in great flux. The theory being espoused by Turner is that if networks like TNT and TruTV contain fewer ads and more time for content, then viewers will be more engaged. The commercials that do run can, if the advertiser wants, be tailored for the programs in which they appear and be rendered more relevant to a viewer’s experience.

It’s rude to talk about money in public conversation, so Turner executives did not start haggling over price. But Donna Speciale, Turner’s president of ad sales, told the assemblage that their support of the idea was “critical” if it were to move forward while a rising generation of viewers is fast growing accustomed to seeing fewer ads when they watch streaming video or video on demand. She also noted many others are embracing the model. NBC has announced, for example, that it will cut ads in “Saturday Night Live” next season by 30%.

It’s a meaty subject, and offers plenty of room for discussion. Here are ten things we learned from Turner’s presentation at the Theater at Madison Square Garden:

*In ad circles, the new ad model hinges upon something known as “reduced commercial loads.” But Kevin Reilly, chief creative officer for Turner Entertainment, referred to the idea as “our new ‘more-show’ format.”

*Both “Animal Kingdom” and “Good Behavior,” two new dramas slated for TNT, will contain ten additional minutes of show content and 50% fewer ads than the typical program, according to Reilly.

*Conan O’Brien’s travel specials, which have sent him to Cuba and Armenia in recent months, will move to primetime on TBS in 2017.

*Samantha Bee wants ad money! The host of TBS’ provocative “Full Frontal” told ad buyers at today’s presentation that “I am dying to go to Cleveland” to cover the Republican convention, and wants $100,000 to buy a sponsorship that will contain both a pitch for her and for her sponsor. “I know you think I’m joking, but I’m not!” she said.

*Turner sees eSports as the next big thing, and has enlisted sponsors like Arby’s and Buffalo Wild Wings for the cause. The new league it has formed will put eSports on Turner networks, and gives Turner ownership over logos and intellectual property associated with the new organization, according to David Levy, president of the Time Warner unit. “It’s the biggest thing you’ve never seen on TV — until now!” Reilly said.

*O’Brien still has unpleasant memories of his time at NBC. He opened the presentation with a joke-filled conversation with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Turner Sports’ Charles Barkley. When the basketball great referred to something as “must-see television” — a phrase commonly associated with the Peacock — O’Brien cautioned him, “Let’s not use that phrase.”

*Just a few months after unveiling two cycles of “Angie Tribeca” in the same season, Turner is likely to try the idea again with other series, said Reilly.

*Turner joined the parade of big TV companies throwing shade at their digital counterparts. “In our world, a view is at least 30 seconds — not three,” said Speciale, making a not-so-veiled reference to advertisers’ concerns about “viewability” of brief pre-roll ads often inserted into streaming-video programming.

*But we all still like digital! TruTV host Adam Conover — known best, perhaps, from his days in YouTube programs — noted that all parties are served best when digital’s best features — data, analytics and audience targeting — can be hitched to TV’s broad reach. As he spoke, the image of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, the treat best known for having two great tastes that go great together, was posted on a giant screen.

*CNN is getting ready to unveil the latest iteration of HLN, the cable network known in long-ago days for having anchor Bobbie Battista deliver “CNN Headline News.” A new late-morning show hosted from Los Angeles by Michaela Pereira is slated to debut soon, and will follow the mainstay “Morning Express” hosted by Robin Meade.

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