Turner Touts Top Talent to Take On Nets

As a means to hammer home the argument that TNT functions as a sixth broadcast network, the channel is investing in more A-list material, prepping series by the likes of Mark Burnett, Jerry Bruckheimer, Ray Romano and Steven Spielberg.

While Turner has spent the last few years trying to erase the distinction between broadcast and cable television, arguing that TNT series like The Closer and Saving Grace offer clients the reach of network TV at a relatively deep discount, executives on the other side of the fence still seem to look at TNT as something of an interloper.

In a Tuesday morning conference call before the Fox upfront presentation, entertainment chairman Peter Rice took a jab at TNT’s reach. “[The Closer] delivers 6.8 million viewers every week,” Rice said. “That’s a great number, but if it was a broadcast show, there are 75 broadcast shows that deliver more viewers than that.”

Rice’s observation is accurate, but it doesn’t address the disparity between broadcast’s ratings share and the amount of ad revenue the nets command in prime. Season-to-date, according to Nielsen data, broadcast accounts for just 40 percent of prime-time viewership, and yet the nets have commanded 71 percent of the ad dollars.

As a means to hammer home the argument that TNT functions as a sixth broadcast network, the channel is investing in more A-list material, prepping series by the likes of Mark Burnett, Jerry Bruckheimer, Ray Romano and Steven Spielberg. The new slate of series makes good on a promise Turner made last year, when entertainment president Steve Koonin said TNT would program three nights of original dramas by 2010.

Beginning this summer, TNT will program its homegrown drama series Monday-Wednesday. Returning series The Closer (9 p.m.) and Raising the Bar (10 p.m.) hold down the fort on Monday, while Tuesday will feature a three-hour block of new shows, including the unscripted series Wedding Day from Burnett and DreamWorks Television (8 p.m.), followed by the Jada Pinkett Smith hospital drama Hawthorne (9 p.m.) and the third-season run of Saving Grace, starring Holly Hunter (10 p.m.).

On Wednesday nights, Timothy Hutton and his merry band of righteous thieves returns for a second run of Leverage (9 p.m.), which leads into McDermott’s new strip, Dark Blue, produced by Bruckheimer (10 p.m.).

As the summer cools off, TNT is preparing for what is perhaps its most anticipated new series, the Ray Romano drama Men of a Certain Age. Appearing on stage at the Hammerstein Ballroom in mid-Manhattan, the comedian cracked that in accepting his first project after Everybody Loves Raymond, he wanted to “make about 95 percent less money” than what he pulled in during his CBS run, adding that in meeting that request, “TNT went above and beyond.”

Romano, who was joined by co-stars Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula, played his role as pitchman to perfection, drawing hearty laughs from an audience of buyers who were already a bit worn down by the rigors of upfront week.

Noting that the project marks his first foray outside broadcast TV, Romano said his parents had conflicting reactions when they were told he’d landed a show on TNT. “My mother was really excited. My father was all, well, I guess now we gotta get cable.”

Men of a Certain Age premieres in December.

Among the projects on TNT’s development slate are: Steven Spielberg’s Untitled Alien Invasion Project; a new courtroom drama from Steven Bochco (Class Action); the Charles S. Dutton drama Pastor Jazz; and Zapata, Texas, a story about a sheriff in a small border town from The Closer star Kyra Sedgwick and her husband, actor Kevin Bacon.

“We’ve got more prime-time dram than three of the broadcast nets,” Koonin said. “We’re not abandoning 10 o’clock.”

Meanwhile, sibling network TBS is drawing up Neighbors from Hell, a half-hour animated strip about a particularly demonic suburban family. The pilot was written by South Park alum Pam Brady and the series is being produced by Fox TV Animation, DreamWorks Animation SKG and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

From Hell is the first original animated series to be developed for TBS, which draws a big crowd with repurposed episodes of Family Guy.

Also in the development hopper is a situation comedy, The Game of Life, executive-produced by Kevin James and his King of Queens confreres Rock Reuben and Jeff Sussman; the Second City TV sketch-comedy effort Wee Hours; and Big Tow, which comes to TBS from The Drew Carey Show head writer and executive producer Clay Graham.

Finally, the rejiggered truTV looks to reach a greater concentration of young male viewers as it ramps up an action/adventure slate of unscripted series. In the works are the self-explanatory Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura, a gritty gridiron strip from NFL Films (NFL Full Contact) and a look at an elite squad of anti-terrorist agents that is being developed under the working title U.S. Special Ops: Declassified.

Turner kicked off the upfront presentation with a deeper dive into its TV in Context initiative, which offers the sort of contextual targeting of online buys, but in the lean-back, immersive environment of television.

Linda Yaccarino, executive vice president and chief operating officer for entertainment sales, marketing and acquisitions at Turner Entertainment Networks, said the list of clients that have signed on for TV in Context buys includes: Applebee’s, Kellogg and General Motors’ OnStar service.

Throughout the 2009-10 TV season, TNT and TBS will make these contextualized buys available in its acquired movies and in series like Leverage.

Yaccarino also reiterated Turner’s plans to experiment with the architecture of its commercial pods, highlighting the “right break at the right time” strategy, which sets brand messaging adjacent to relevant programming context, and “breakless breaks,” a suite of advanced advertising offerings that includes customized vignettes and integrated tune-ins.

Wrapping her pitch, Yaccarino said she was looking forward to sitting down with buyers in the coming weeks. “Please let’s not make it happen in August,” she joked, hoping to prompt a little early business in what’s promising to be a protracted marketplace. “Let’s all take a long vacation in August.”