The man who helped transform TBS and TNT into the powerhouse networks they are today, Steve Koonin, gave Kennesaw State University students earlier this week a taste of how the networks got to where they are.
He said a decade ago, after he arrived, the management team looked at TNT through the lens of psychographics. Those are categories of “typical” consumers of a particular product or brand. In the case of TV, he showed the students a pie chart broken into five general categories:
- 16% Cultural Highbrows (the types who watch documentaries and opera) “I don’t care much for these people,” Koonin said, semi-facetiously, since they aren’t the types who would watch TNT or TBS much.
- 20% TV worshippers (the types who watch 42 hours of TV a week and watch a variety of genres) “We love these people!” he said.
- 20% Competition lovers (mostly guys who watch sports. TBS airs baseball, TNT basketball.)
- 19% Drama lovers (”Television that makes you think and feel, that touches your heart and your mind,” he said.)
- 25% Comedy lovers (”They use comedy as a mood elevator, as their Prozac.”)
TNT, he said, chose to focus on the drama lovers, as well as competition lovers and TV worshippers. They ceded the other two categories.
The station’s focus and slogan “We know drama” worked. TNT, he noted, went from No. 6 to No. 1 among basic cable viewership, full day, where it has been tops for seven years. One risky move: the network sold off its No. 1 show WWE to WWF because it didn’t fit TNT’s brand anymore.
Koonin learned his branding skills at the Atlanta-based company that defines an enduring brand: Coca-Cola. Brands, he noted, need to be relevant, focused, consistent and first/unique. TNT pulled all that off.
He showed a trailer of TNT dramas, including the upcoming “Dallas,” “Southland,” “The Closer,” “Falling Skies” and “Rizzoli & Isles.” (I think I saw a scene of “Memphis Beat,” but that drama was just canceled.) He was especially enthused about “Dallas” and showed the students a trailer for the show, which comes to TNT next summer. Production of “Dallas” began this week. A pilot shot months ago was “our highest tested pilot in our history.”
He then moved on to TBS. That station was reconfigured in 2004. It had plenty of history as the nation’s first “super station,” courtesy of Ted Turner and had a reputation for the Atlanta Braves, wrestling and Andy Griffith. With TNT focused on drama, TBS became the comedy channel with the slogan “Very Funny.”
Koonin likes to gamble. He noted that 9 out of 10 shows fail. That’s probably fair, especially on broadcast TV and if you count pilots, too.
TBS has relied heavily to date on a relatively safe gamble: repeats of broadcast network hits such as “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “Family Guy” and this fall, ‘The Big Bang Theory.” It has worked well. The station pulls in solid numbers.
Koonin also took a major gamble with Tyler Perry in 2006. Perry offered to pay for ten episodes of “House of Payne” out of his own pocket. TBS tested it in about 10 markets. The comedy did extraordinarily well. The payoff: TBS committed to a whopping 100 episodes. Over five years, Perry has now given TBS more than 400 original episodes of “Payne” and “Meet the Browns.” He has retired “Payne” and will start a new show “For Better or Worse” in November. It’s been a good partnership. TBS has also done well with Ice Cube’s companion show “Are We There Yet?” All three comedies fill a gap left by broadcast networks: sitcoms targeting African-American households.
Perry “is Forbes highest paid entertainer. We’re happy to be a large contributor,” Koonin said.
TBS’s other efforts at original comedy have been spotty at best. In the early “Very Funny” years, TBS tackled reality programming with duds such as “The Real Gilligan’s Island” and “Outback Jack.” It has tried semi-improv (”10 Items or Less,”), relationships (”My Boys”), animation (”Neighbors From Hell”) and family comedy (”The Bill Engvall Show”). None has stuck.
But Koonin made another huge gamble last year that he thinks has paid off handsomely: picking up Conan O’Brien for a talk show after NBC let him go from “The Tonight Show” last year. It’s the network’s biggest commitment to original programming to date. “He’s the jewel and the centerpiece of TBS,” Koonin told the students.
Though the show’s ratings (typically 800,000 to 900,000 a night) is lower than what many outsiders expected, Koonin remains optimistic, noting Conan’s young demographics (median age: 32) and his impact on the Web and social media. Conan is also working with TBS to develop scripted programming. TBS ordered a script from Conan this month of a comedy called “Fat Chance.”
Koonin also talked about how Turner fosters a creative environment. “It’s in our everyday work,” he said, “everything we touch. Everything has creativity to it.” He touched upon Springboard, a way for Turner employee ideas to get heard. He said they’ve considered more than 270 ideas. One that came from an employee: “TV in context.” This is a database of scenes from TV and film that can be connected to advertisers. So if someone in a romantic comedy gets engaged, a jewelry store could buy ads that appear right after that scene. Koonin calls that “contextual advertising,” something Google has been able to take advantage of in spades.
Koonin did acknowledge that even some of his ideas, which seem great at the time, didn’t quite work the way he had envisioned. He cited promotions for George Clooney’s “The Perfect Storm” a few years back for TNT. He would insert a fake FCC emergency call signal into a show and instead of a crawl saying there was a tornado coming your way, a promo for “The Perfect Storm” would go by. The FCC, he said, was not pleased. The government agency received 126,000 complaints. Then again, this wasn’t really a failure per se, which is probably why he cited this example: ratings were huge.
He also talked about another cool idea the network recently launched called “TV Everywhere.” Anyone who has a paid subscription to TBS and TNT can now tap shows from those networks on any device, be it an iPad or iPhone at no additional charge. So far, the app has been downloaded 1.5 million times over three weeks, he said.
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk