TNT Plots Return to Top Cable Slot

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Turner Network Television, jockeying to return to its No. 1 position in primetime, is revamping its program lineup to make appointment viewing easier for its audience.

As part of the overhaul, TNT will schedule its new original series on Tuesdays and air wall-to-wall movies on weekends. But perhaps more significantly, the network has opted to air National Basketball Association games on consecutive nights in primetime-Wednesdays and Thursdays instead of Tuesdays and Fridays.

"We're looking to be a place where a viewer can tune in and know what to expect," TNT executive vice president and general manager Steve Koonin said. "Now, our schedule will be simpler."

Koonin, who joined TNT in February from Coca-Cola Co., was set to unveil his network's new programming strategy this past weekend at the Television Critics Association summer tour in Pasadena, Calif.

TNT is angling to once again be No. 1 in primetime ratings among cable networks and to knock USA Network out of the top spot. In the second quarter, USA was No. 1 with a 2.2 rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. TNT and its sister service, TBS Superstation, were tied for second place, each with a 1.9.

TNT's new schedule will debut in August. As part of the overhaul, each night on TNT will stand for a particular kind of programming, creating a regular destination for audiences.

Sports and original series will dominate the week in primetime, according to Koonin.

On Mondays, TNT will continue to air its two-hour block of World Championship Wrestling, WCW Monday Nitro Live!. But on Tuesday nights, the network will showcase its new original hour-long dramatic series.

The network's first drama, Bull, premieres Aug. 15 at 10 p.m. TNT's second dramatic series, Breaking News, launches in January.

In January, Breaking News will replace Bull, which will return later in the year with new episodes. TNT hopes that both new series will be successes so that they can eventually be scheduled back-to-back from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., according to Koonin.

TNT has ordered 13 episodes each of Bull and Breaking News. Bull tells the story of a group of investment bankers on Wall Street, and Breaking News is about the drama behind the "high-pressure environment of a 24-hour news station."

Since TBS will air NBA games on Tuesdays, and TNT will run them on Wednesdays and Thursdays, the Turner networks will actually have three straight nights of basketball.

TNT opted to move the NBA games to consecutive evenings to benefit from the audience flow from night to night, banking that Thursday's games will get a bump when TNT promotes them during Wednesday's games, Koonin said.

The network enjoyed that kind of audience flow night to night during the NBA playoffs, which often aired on consecutive evenings. "The audience carry-over night to night was dramatic," he added.

Finally, from Friday to Sunday, TNT will air movies, as it has often done in the past. But now, Friday nights will be reserved for the broadcast premieres of theatricals to kick off each weekend of movies.

Through 2001, TNT will air more than 30 broadcast-premiere titles on Friday nights-programming that typically draws large audiences to the network. Prior, TNT typically aired a variety of library product on Friday nights.

TNT sees a big programming opportunity on Friday in primetime. "Friday is not a night when the networks are presenting great fare," Koonin said.

On Saturdays, TNT will offer "Saturday Night New Classics," or theatricals such as Animal House and A League of Their Own. "These are the movies a generation knows by heart and the movies you love," Koonin said.

Finally, TNT has officially set aside Sunday nights to premiere its original movies at 8 p.m., which is where it often debuted its telepics previously.

The network's latest made-for-TV movie, Running Mates, will premiere Aug. 13, a Sunday. It stars Tom Selleck and Teri Hatcher in a comedy-drama that takes a behind-the-scenes look at presidential politics, Hollywood and the media.

Although competition from the broadcast networks is tough on Sunday nights, TNT plans to "be selective" in the way it premieres its eight or so original movies per year, according to Koonin.

He described TNT sports fare, such as wrestling and the NBA, as "presold" to audiences. "We will use Tuesday and weekends to develop fans," he added.

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