TBS Moves to Create Niche of Its Own7/05/1998 8:00 PM Eastern
TBS Superstation, after years of living in the shadows of
the other Turner Broadcasting System Inc.networks -- in terms of original shows,
if not ratings --is finally readying itself for the big-time.
The network has revamped its look, and it will step up to
the plate in 1999 with a new, high-profile feel that will eventually help it to retire its
reputation as the network of TheAndy Griffith Show.
The main elements of the network's maneuvering
include: the production of original movies, and perhaps even series, geared toward younger
males; the pursuit of high-profile off-network sitcoms; and the jettisoning of certain
staples of the old TBS lineup.
In addition to specific promotions for each of its new
efforts, TBS president Bill Burke said, the network is planning some overall
image-marketing campaigns, which will, of course, receive heavy cross-promotion on Turner
Network Television, Cable News Network, Cartoon Network and other sister networks.
"This will distinctly brand the network," said
Janeen Bjork, senior vice president and director of programming for Seltel Inc., who
follows the landscape for broadcast-station clients. Bjork said TBS' new programming
fits in well with the classic independent-station model of baseball and male-oriented
movies in primetime. TBS is, after all, a local independent station out of Atlanta.
"It's a natural evolution that was going to have
to take place eventually," added Bill Carroll, vice president and director of
programming for Katz Television Group, another broadcast-station rep. Carroll pointed out
that the "niche that was exclusively theirs has been spread out," with networks
like USA Network, FX and others filling the role of general-interest national
independents, to a degree.
"We all need to find our own turf and plant the
flag," Carroll said.
The changes will help the network to compete not just with
networks like USA, but with the entire television universe, Burke said.
"Every night, we are competing with everybody for
viewers -- ABC, NBC, ESPN, TNT," he said.
There was no moment of epiphany, where the network
executives suddenly decided to re-create the network, Burke said, adding, "This was
definitely a gradual process."
Some of the decisions were made easier by the fact that
TBS' sister stations could offer better homes for the programming that no longer fit
with TBS. It's hard to argue with the logic that dictated sending TBS' remaining
animated programming to Cartoon. And documentaries were never a comfortable fit on
TBS' mass-audience lineup (think professional wrestling), so they didn't fare
well in the ratings.
Additionally, Burke said, "documentaries were being
well-served by networks like A&E [Network], Discovery [Channel] and The Learning
Channel." So Turner Original Productions, which produced TBS' documentaries, has
been shifted to CNN, which, Turner executives felt, can provide a better platform for this
genre, and which desperately needs noncrisis programming that can gain an audience.
"This clarifies what exactly each network is,"
The only documentary remaining on TBS will be National
Geographic Explorer, which is being bumped from Sunday to Wednesday, and which will
feature more predators and more action to fit with the new young, male demographic
And while TNT has already established itself as a home for
original movies, Burke said, that will help TBS, and not hurt it. He added that in the
past, if TNT passed on a movie, producers had to look elsewhere for a home, but now, when
it's appropriate, TBS gets referrals from its sister network. And TNT has such a
strong track record for production and promotion that producers are eager to work with
"Their reputation has benefited us," Burke said.
Additionally, while TNT's movies cover a diverse range
of genres, and they are more high-end and "almost theatrical," Burke said, TBS
will keeps a narrower focus. It will stick with action-adventure-thriller movies that
match with its desired young, male demographic, and it will make "more basic,
"We will produce movies that fit the personality of
the network," said Jim Head, TBS' vice president of original programming.
The only overlap, he said, might be Westerns, which would
fit in with TBS' audience's desire for action, but which TNT already does so
well that TBS will steer away from them. Head said TBS' movies will be "bold,
contemporary and viewer-friendly."
This aggressively commercial approach means no dark movies,
no period pieces and no disease-of-the-week films, for the most part. The network does
have a miniseries about Ronald and Nancy Reagan that it plans to air in1999,which would be, to a certain extent, a historical drama (albeit of a very recent
vintage) and a disease movie, since part of it would focus on the former president's
struggle with Alzheimer's disease.
Still, Head said, a high-profile project on a popular
president who had a Hollywood career was too good a choice to pass up.
In addition to the Reagan project, Head said, the network
has signed four development deals for movies:
Hurricane: Force Five, a disaster thriller
about a massive hurricane wreaking havoc on New York. "It's very high
concept," Head said, about Alliance Communications Corp.'s production.
Reaper, a cyber-scare flick about two doctors
who must save society from a computer virus that evolves into a deadly, organic virus.
"This one is very contemporary," Head said, of
the Zerneck-Sertner Films script.
Play to Win, an adventure movie about an
ex-jock cop who is out to crack a drug ring headed by a ruthless female corporate
"This has lots of action," Head said about the
PolyGram Television effort.
Code of Silence, a fact-based saga of a
close-knit community that refuses to help the police solve a rash of local murders.
"This is based on Charlestown, Mass., which had this
real code of silence, "Head said. Singer-White Entertainment produced the film.
The network has yet to green-light any of the four films,
but Head said he plans to have the first one in production by late summer or early fall.
And while he declined to divulge exact figures, he said, "The network will invest the
dollars that it takes to make an excellent television movie."
Although the movies require bigger budgets than the
documentaries did, the network will produce fewer of them, while probably earning larger
audiences in the initial run, and certainly earning higher ratings in repeats, when movies
fare far better than documentaries.
While big spending won't guarantee success, the deep
pockets of TBS will help it to find an audience.
"If they're well-done, you know they'll be
well-promoted," Bjork said, adding that there is an increasing amount of press
coverage these days of made-for-cable material.
Head said the network will roll out its original movies
gradually, with only four in 1999, before expanding its schedule in following years. The
first one will run in March 1999, with the next three following in June, August and
October. By slotting them into nonsweeps months, with two during the summer, TBS is
looking to gain attention when the broadcast networks are likely to be running repeats.
TBS is also following TNT's formula: Start out airing
a modest schedule of original films, before expanding the number of productions when they
prove to be a success
Bjork termed TBS' approach "wise," saying
that while the obvious way to build an audience is to schedule a movie every Monday or
Tuesday, it's better to produce four strong movies in the first year than 16 mediocre
"This way, they can give each a really big push,"
Meanwhile, the development front is also extending to
original series, where the network would like to make some inroads. The first project is a
half-hour series based on the network's popular interstitial program, Monkey-ed
Movies, which features chimps and orangutans acting out parodies of famous theatrical
movies. The development deal is with sister companyWarner Bros. Domestic Pay-TV,
Cable and Network Features, in association with Palomar Pictures.
"We're pretty far along on this series,"
Burke said. And although the network has a lot of other concepts in development, it will
move slowly. "We're not diving in head-first," he said.
The network is also becoming increasingly aggressive in its
pursuit of off-network sitcoms. TBS recently nabbed nonexclusive rights to Home
Improvement, after USA's deal for the show fell through. TBS will get the show in
2002 or 2003, depending on whether it lasts for one or two more seasons on ABC.
TBS also bought the rights for The Wizard of Oz,
which CBS has aired for decades, and it is expected to be near the top of the heap on the
bidding for the second syndication cycle for Seinfeld.
"We've made it clear that we're interested
in Seinfeld,"Burke said.
Additionally, Burke said, TBS is "very open about its
intentions" to get into the bidding for off-network shows in their first runs.It
pursued Seinfeld, and it "went very far down the road a couple of times last
year in negotiations," Burke said.
Buying a series for syndication while it's still
enjoying a broadcast-network run "is definitely an advantage," he said. Carroll
agreed, saying that it wouldfreshen the feel of TBS' lineup.
The network will look for other ways to repackage itself as
a hipper place to be, even when the product isn't changing. For example, "The
Movie Lounge," which will feature special guests discussing the Saturday movie, will
join "Dinner & a Movie" as a packaging tool to better market movies that
audiences may have already seen.