With the American hand basket plummeting ever hellward, many consumers feel like they could use a good belly laugh every now and again, a little ha-ha to take the sting out of what's turned out to be a rather grim and joyless decade. Because the broadcast sitcom is about as dead as the diplodocus, younger viewers in particular are increasingly looking to cable for their redemptive yuks, and TBS has made the most of the migratory trend.
In the strike-torn first quarter of 2008, TBS set a new high-water mark for ad-supported cable with its delivery of adults 18-34, averaging 701,000 members of the demo in prime time, according to Nielsen Media Research. Not only did the Turner net boost its profile among the demo by 34 percent versus the prior-year period, but it also beat The CW, which averaged 696,000 18-34s during the quarter.
And while cable is plotted against a different timeline, TBS' 18-34 delivery held true going back to last fall. From Sept. 24 to May 4, TBS averaged 699,000 18-34s, up 44 percent versus the comparable period in 2006-07. Season-to-date, The CW beat TBS in the demo, averaging 755,000 viewers.
"Cable picked up a lot of traffic during the strike, but you can't argue with the trends we've been seeing over the last three, four years. As long as [Turner] doesn't buy into too much of its own hype and ask for ridiculous CPM hikes, they can argue that they should at least see parity with a flailing broadcast net," said one buyer who asked not to be identified. "On a show-by-show basis, cable might be getting close, like when you have The Closer or Monk or something that has reach. But TBS doesn't have that one signature [original] show."
Steve Koonin, president, Turner Entertainment Networks, chalks up the cabler's newfound standing as a destination for younger viewers to its investment in comedy. "Four years ago, before we got into the business of being very funny, our median age was 40," said Koonin. "In the first quarter of this year we brought it all the way down to 33."
Original series like House of Payne and My Boys have been solid ratings drivers for TBS, but the bulk of its younger viewership is drawn by off-net acquisitions like The Office and Family Guy. Since the year began, the animated series about the talking alcoholic dog and the matricidal infant has helped the net draw an average 341,000 males 18-34, besting even demo leader Comedy Central (327,000).
In a two-minute branding spot Koonin will present to media buyers during the TBS portion of Turner's May 14 upfront presentation, My Boys star Jordana Spiro spells out a new call to action, telling viewers that the network is the place where they can "feel good, chill out and laugh it off." The mantra is a new gloss on TBS' "Very Funny" tagline, and neatly encapsulates Koonin's programming philosophy.
"Despite what everyone seems to think, there's no prerequisite that says cable has to be edgy," Koonin said. "That may work at other networks, but we're looking to be relatable, to put up the kind of smart, family comedy that you can't find on broadcast anymore."
TBS has returned all of its original shows, including the late-night strips Frank TV and 10 Items or Less, so there's no room on the schedule for a freshman entry. That said, Koonin isn't allowing the net to rest on its laurels.
In June 2009, TBS will launch its second comedy lollapalooza in Just For Laughs: A Very Funny Festival. The four-day Chicago event will feature 40 different acts.
"If you look around at what's going on right now, it's a lot like the comedy boom of the mid-'80s," Koonin said. "But comedy accounts for just 5 percent of prime-time television. There's nowhere for these people to go if they want to make the jump to TV. We want to be that place."