Despite Hits, TBS Dumps Flicks


TBS Superstation, looking to firmly establish a new younger-skewing brand, is abandoning its successful foray into action-oriented original movies.

TBS is scrapping its made-for-TV-movie initiative at a time when its telepics are generating dynamite numbers. The network's most recent effort, the shark thriller Red Water, posted a 5.0 household rating for its Aug. 17 debut, according to an ABC Cable Networks Group analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

Despite the success of "popcorn" telepics such as Red Water
and last year's Atomic Twister, made-for-TV movies don't complement the identity that Turner Broadcasting System Inc. is trying to carve out for TBS, according to Steve Koonin, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Turner Entertainment Group.

"We're sitting here enjoying the success of Red Water, but also are fully aware that while it may work for today's strategy, it won't work for tomorrow's," Koonin said last week.

After successfully creating the "We Know Drama" brand identity for Turner Network Television, Koonin in April was promoted and given the additional task of running TBS Superstation.

About six weeks ago, Koonin said he and Turner Entertainment president Mark Lazarus came to the conclusion that TBS should stop doing made-for-TV films. TBS has been producing about five original movies a year, reportedly in the range of $4 million to $5 million apiece.

Any money that now goes toward telepics — 10 hours of programming — would be better spent on new, original non-scripted series described as "light entertainment" — the opposite of TNT's drama, and the programming direction in which TBS is moving.

"It seemed like a smart idea to trade those 10 high-cost hours and put [the money] into something that can help us build our brand, help us reinforce who we are and play extremely well with our [off-network] comedy series," Koonin said.

TBS has seen 200 pitches for shows, and has several series in development, according to Koonin.

Koonin was quick to point out that he had to make the same kind of hard choices at TNT when he was trying to strengthen its positioning.

"When we took over TNT, we had to make decisions on our highest-rated programming, WCW [World Championship Wrestling]," Koonin said. "And we decided that we couldn't be dedicated to drama and have something like wrestling that really wasn't really dramatic in any way, shape or form. So you have to make hard decisions."

Unlike TNT, TBS Superstation has really never had a defined strategy, continuing to resemble an independent TV station in terms of its programming. Its lineup has included a strong-performing afternoon-early evening block of sitcoms like Seinfeld
and Atlanta Braves baseball.

In the second quarter, TBS posted a 1.3 rating in primetime, down 24% from 1.7 a year ago.

TBS needs a strong series that will draw audiences on a regular basis in order to build a brand, according to Shari Anne Brill, vice president and director of programming services for Carat USA Inc.

"TBS needs to decide who they want to be as a brand, and then the programming will follow," Brill said. "They have to have some kind of overarching positioning statement of what TBS is."

As a result of TBS's change in strategy, a handful of jobs will eventually be eliminated. Tana Nugent-Jamieson, vice president of original programming, movies, and Margie Moreno, director of development, will work on other projects for TBS and stay around until the spring.

Koonin wouldn't disclose any details of TBS's new positioning. He said TBS is still conducting research with 2,000 consumers.

"We're validating some premises that we have," Koonin said. "We have a pretty clear idea and direction. It's just, unfortunately, for competitive reasons, we're not going to unveil it 'til next year's [ad-sales] upfront."

TBS has one made-for-TV movie left to premiere: National Lampoon's Holiday Reunion. It will run in November.