David Levy Pushes Unscripted Shows on Turner Networks


David Levy’s relaxation technique is pretty simple. “Every time I get too stressed I look out across here and there’s not an ad in sight,” he said, gesturing to the vast, Emmy-lined window of his corner office in New York’s Time Warner Center. It’s true. The only recognizable brand from Levy’s perch is Central Park.

The president of sales, distribution and sports for Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., will need to stay loose in the coming months. He’s preparing for some major changes at his flagship networks this fall. “We’re not abandoning scripted,” he cautioned. “But we are going to start getting involved in unscripted for both TBS and TNT.”

A heavy emphasis on unscripted would be a serious change in the weather for both networks, which historically have relied on acquired syndicated content to serve as launch pads for their original scripted series. Sometimes the strategy has worked. TNT’s syndication of Law & Order has helped to buttress shows like The Closer and its spin-off, Major Crimes. But sometimes it hasn’t. Despite a strong lead-in from TBS’ top-rated The Big Bang Theory, the new comedy Wedding Band died on the vine after delivering a mere 1.21 million total viewers and an 0.5 in the 18-49 demo. With an infusion of less-pricey talk shows, reality series and game shows, Turner will be able to focus its energies on a more careful curation of the scripted series in development.

At the moment, Levy is in full-blown basketball mode. For the third time in as many years, CBS and Turner will share the March Madness wealth, teaming up to offer live broadcasts of each of the NCAA tournament’s 67 games. Levy said the games give Turner a chance to try out new technology, which he hopes will end up convincing buyers that a GRP on one of his networks is worth a lot more than a GRP somewhere else. Ad executions show up on smartphones, on tablets; everywhere they can reasonably fit.

“At this stage of the game, those [deliveries] are additive,” said Levy. “Coca-Cola knows it, Capital One knows it, but we’re not able to monetize it.”

Levy said this season he’s looking for growth in particular at Adult Swim, a network where the creative types sometimes try their hand at more commercial pursuits. For example, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, stars and creators of the upcoming series Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories, have shot promotional videos for the likes of Old Spice, Boost Mobile and Absolut vodka.

Adult Swim is popular with young men in the 18-34 range, but some of those viewers have actually grown up with the network. “I think you’re going to find that 18-49 is an opportunity,” Levy said.

Heading into the upfront season, Levy believes he’ll continue to see growth. Second-quarter scatter pricing is on track to be up 10 percent versus the rates established in the 2012-13 bazaar, and cancelation options are at low ebb.

Industry analyst Brian Wieser agreed with Levy broadly, saying he suspected the spring cable market would remain up between 5 percent and 7 percent.

“The top cable networks that are still broadcast substitutes—namely Turner and USA and Lifetime—should see mid-single-digit pricing increases and volume increases,” Wieser said. On network TV, Wieser predicted that pricing will come in “toward an 8 percent kind of range for the top broadcast network, i.e. CBS.” Cable, which is likely to be negotiated afterward, will see more moderate increases.

That, by the way, drives Levy crazy: “In this day and age, if you ask anybody between 18 and 40 the difference between broadcast and cable, they’ll say, ‘What are you talking about? It’s television.’”

The weakness of the broadcast season hasn’t gone unnoticed, and sales executives are looking forward to negotiating aggressively with a spreadsheet of prime-time ratings in their back pockets.