Turner Broadcasting gets on a roll with NCAA, Conan O’Brien

It may not have been 10 days that shook the world. But it was certainly 10 days in April that had many scratching their heads and causing me to wonder if the audacious Ted Turner had secretly returned to the helm of Turner Broadcasting.

Phil Kent

Phil Kent

First, the Atlanta-based media company, which Ted founded 40 years ago, sweeps in and scoops up Conan O’Brien — stunning industry watchers who had expected rival Fox to land him.

Then, Turner Broadcasting announces it’s teaming up with CBS to televise the NCAA basketball tournament — a $10.8 billion, 14-year agreement that dwarfs any previous programming deal by the company.

What’s going on?

“It’s wonderful that it happened in a two-week period,” Phil Kent, chairman and CEO, said during an interview last week. But, he added, it was not planned that way.

The NCAA deal involved two sets of complex negotiations — one between CBS and Turner, and the other between both of them and the NCAA — that began about six months ago, Kent explained. By contrast, the deal with O’Brien happened in whirlwind negotiations that occurred over a few days.

The timing of the announcements, however, couldn’t be better. Aside from all the publicity about the deals, on May 19 Turner execs make their presentations to the media buyers who purchase ad time.

“The script has obviously changed,” Kent said. “These shows will be a very key part of our presentations. … They will ratchet up interest to a whole new level. … There’s already a frenzy of advertisers wanting to be around Conan.”

While describing both deals as “game-changers,” Kent said the moves are consistent with his strategy — building the network brands by investing in programming that draws more viewers and advertisers.

The two new properties will play out differently for Turner, Kent, 55, explained.

O’Brien will help TBS boost its late-night audience, with an hour show Monday to Thursday at 11 p.m., followed by George Lopez at midnight.

“It will be a killer two-hour block,” Kent said.

You can bet that O’Brien will be heavily promoted on more than just TBS, well before his November debut. He could become the face of TBS, like Jon Stewart is for Comedy Central.

The NCAA deal is quite different. The once- a-year tournament in March is marquee sports programming widely embraced by viewers and advertisers. The CBS-Turner partnership means every game will be televised, with Turner using TBS, TNT and truTV. Turner gets the Final Four in 2016 and alternate years thereafter.

Kent was not willing to discuss estimates about the added revenue from advertisers on the networks and the cable distributors of the networks.

What would he say? “There will be a very good return of investment.”

So, will there be more of these deals?

The 10 networks are always trying to innovate, Kent said, but opportunities like O’Brien and the NCAA are rare.

And he said he wants the weak prime-time ratings at CNN “to be a lot better than they are,” but he wouldn’t telegraph any possible moves.

He did add: “Don’t stay tuned for another $10 billion deal.”

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One comment Add your comment


July 2nd, 2010
9:55 am

Conan sucks.