Turner in a Must-Seize-TV Mode?

Author:
Publish date:
Updated on

Turner Broadcasting System Inc. seems to be eager to
channel additional revenues into Time Warner Inc.'s coffers from ER and Seinfeld
-- "Must See TV" series in which sister Time Warner companies are involved.

Barely two weeks ago, Turner's New York-based ad-sales
operation, Turner Broadcasting Sales Inc., announced that it's handling ER's
off-net ad sales both for Turner Network Television in cable and for syndication.

That was barely two months after NBC paid Warner Bros.
Television a record $13 million per episode for the next three years to keep TV's
highest-rated show from jumping to a rival network.

"It's got to hurt NBC," said Howard Nass,
senior vice president at TN Media. "You'd think that they [Time Warner and
Warner Bros.] would want to protect their investment" in ER, and that NBC
would be smart enough to contractually protect its franchise, Nass added.

Bill Croasdale, national-broadcast-division president at
Western International Media, felt that NBC would complain to Warner. "Normally, in an
aftermarket sale, you can't compete head-to-head with the original series," he
said, wondering if NBC's contract also barred same-night airings.

But a spokesman for Turner's ad-sales operation
maintained that NBC executives weren't in cardiac arrest over the plans. TBSI's
initial announcement was made a year ago, with the naming of TNT as ER's cable
carrier being the new element, he added.

Turner's off-net cable plan calls for stripping ER
on TNT at 7 p.m. (EST) weeknights, replacing Babylon 5, in mid-September.
Additional two-hour installments on Thursdays at 8 p.m., replacing theatricals, will in a
sense be lead-ins to NBC's fresh fall-season episodes at 10 p.m. In fact, fans could
enjoy an all-ER Thursday night via TNT and NBC.

Joe Uva, TBSI's president of entertainment sales and
marketing, said his sales force has already begun "serious talks" with two
advertisers seeking cable/syndication category exclusivity. Uva would not comment further
last week.

But "you can't buy one in isolation," said
Bob Flood, senior vice president of national broadcast at DeWitt Media. Advertisers must
pony up for units in cable and syndication as a package, he added.

That joint cable/syndication sales tack "would require
a pretty significant [dollar] commitment," Flood said.

Having ER will help TNT big-time, Nass said.
"TNT will leverage that in their [network-package] buys" across the board --
especially in targeting new clients that are eager for the "hard-to-reach 18-to-34
audience" that ER attracts.

Interestingly, the ER deal illustrates what Steve
Heyer, president and chief operating officer of TBS Inc., told the Cabletelevision
Advertising Bureau's conference the day before the ER announcement: It's
better to be a copyright owner than a rights "renter."

Nonetheless, agency sources raised various points and
concerns. For example, there's the threat of overexposure, with some buyers fearing
that NBC's original ER episodes could turn anemic.

"My belief is that it'll hurt NBC," Nass
said. Croasdale wondered if viewers "will be ERed out by 10 p.m.
Thursday" under TNT's plan. "It's a smart move on Turner's part,
but it will hurt NBC," he said.

But Turner's spokesman countered that those agencies
talking up the erosion factor might just be trying to use that to leverage better pricing
from NBC.

Indeed, not all buyers saw Turner's off-net plans as
threatening NBC's medical drama. Audrey Steele, senior vice president at Zenith Media
Services, felt that ER's cable/syndication reruns won't appreciably
affect NBC's originals. "In fact, it might bolster it by refreshing
viewers' memories" and bringing in newcomers, she said.

Agency sources said TNT should benefit from its
appointment-viewing strategy for ER, but some wondered about the drama's
aftermarket longevity.

TNT's move "brings to mind The X-Files on
FX, where a single, powerful show was able to redefine a network," Steele observed.

"It could do big things for TNT," Flood said,
noting that TNT has much wider distribution than FX. Still other sources felt that TNT
could capitalize on NBC's potential Thursday weakness if NBC's lineup becomes
less "Must-See" after the Seinfeld finale in May.

In general, a series' off-net afterlife doesn't
damage its primetime network originals, Steele said. NYPD Blue is being rerun on FX
and CBS late-night, but she said that series has already peaked, so the cable/syndication
run is having "no real impact" on ABC's showings. Moreover, cable's
audience is younger and more male than ABC's, she noted.

ER doesn't appear to have peaked yet on NBC, she
said, adding that NBC's replacement for Seinfeld will be a future factor, too.

Speaking of Seinfeld, Heyer said at the CAB
conference that TBS Superstation had recently considered showcasing the off-net reruns of Seinfeld'slast NBC season as a "big-event" strategy for that cable network. Flood said
he believed that TBS' idea has since been "back-burnered" because it
didn't quite fit "TBS' overall branding model."

Related