Koonin Electric as Turner Suffers Upfront Blackout

Entertainment chief’s jokes keep fannies in seats

A power surge at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom Wednesday morning threatened to put the kibosh on Turner’s upfront presentation, but a quick-thinking programming executive saved the day.

Moments after Conan O’Brien wrapped an affectionate skewering of TBS, the auditorium was plunged into darkness. After a few minutes of fumbling in the dark failed to reignite the screen, Turner entertainment president Steve Koonin took the stage, stitching what amounted to an improvised stand-up bit.

“My name is Steve Koonin, formerly of Turner Broadcasting,” he said, drawing an appreciative roar from the crowd of media buyers. Warning his audience that he had no idea when power might be restored, Koonin issued some sage survival advice. “I would ration your pastries,” he cracked.

As Koonin waited for word on the electrical situation, he really hit his stride. “By the way, our pricing is not changing because of this,” he said, adding that Turner’s expenses are likely to decrease as a result of the snafu, “if you know what I mean.”

When the teleprompter briefly flickered to life, Koonin asked if there were a defibrillator on the premises. “Given our technical progress, they’re probably using it to make grilled cheese sandwiches back there,” he quipped.

In what could have been an absolute disaster, Koonin demonstrated tremendous poise. A few buyers may have marched out after the first power outage, but once the entertainment chief began his monologue, he had the room in the palm of his hand. (Koonin got his biggest laugh when he tried to explain the cause of the outage: “We had a power surge, it blew something…I’m Jewish, so I have no clue what happened.”)

When Koonin finally ran out of material, he was spelled by a pro. Ray Romano, star of TNT’s Men of a Certain Age, came out and delivered a bit about marital sex and those bizarro-world Cialis commercials with the his-and-hers bathtubs.

Romano’s willingness to help put out the fire spoke volumes about his relationship with Turner. (He actually tried to underplay the effort, joking that programming chief Michael Wright “pushed me out here and said, ‘Earn your money!’”)

The effort was much appreciated by the suits backstage and the buyers in the audience. “Look at the talent we had on that stage, and look at the lengths they went to pitch in,” said David Levy, president of sales, distribution and sports, Turner Broadcasting System.

Less inspiring was the raunchy routine offered by George Lopez. The comic and host of Lopez Tonight went blue, dropping a load of F-bombs before submitting a topical bit about the arrest of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn that ended with Lopez uttering the word “semen.” Twice.

Once the video wall was up and running again, Turner was able to return to the business at hand. Among the notable entries on TNT’s 2011-12 development slate are Major Crimes, a one-hour spinoff of The Closer, and Perception, a ghostly crime drama starring Eric McCormack.

The two new efforts will join the previously announced series Falling Skies, Steven Spielberg’s tale of an apocalyptic alien invasion (June 19), and Franklin & Bash, a jokey lawyer show starring Breckin Meyer and Mark-Paul Gosselaar.

Meanwhile, TNT sibling TBS will try its hand at another one-hour comedy, greenlighting The Wedding Band (working title), which stars Brian Austin Green and Harold Perrineau as members of “Seattle’s second-best wedding band.” While the clip was interrupted twice by power outages, from what we saw, the show looks like what might happen if someone were to develop a project around the Free Credit Score-dot-com band.

It’s a bold choice, given the ho-hum reception awarded to TBS’ first stab at a double-stuffed sitcom. After premiering to 1.83 million viewers on Nov. 16, 2010, Glory Daze failed to find its footing. The show’s final episode delivered just 1.05 million viewers, per Nielsen.

Also under consideration are 10 new scripted projects for TNT and three for TBS. The comedy net is also developing a game show for Conan O’Brien sidekick Andy Richter. 

Together, TNT and TBS pull in more ad sales revenue than any other cable entertainment networks, netting $1.6 billion in 2010, per SNL Kagan data.