Can TNT Become the New AMC? (Analysis)

Bryan Cranston and Jon Bernthal
Bryan Cranston and Jon Bernthal
 

This story first appeared in the Dec. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

A trio of sharply dressed musicians drop their strings and pull tommy guns from a stroller, lighting up a 1920s Los Angeles alleyway with a spray of gunfire. It's a violent display, flirting with Tarantino-esque gore, and it wouldn't look out of place during any five-minute stretch of HBO's Boardwalk Empire.

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But this is TNT, until now known for popcorn crime dramas and procedurals. The scene is the prologue to its latest original drama, Mob City, a serialized noir from Oscar nominee and ousted Walking Dead showrunner Frank Darabont. Set to premiere Dec. 4, the pricey period piece signals a departure from TNT's tried-and-true formula, and its planned 2014 launches should solidify the Turner network's quest for the type of high-concept prestige dramas that have worked so well for AMC (Breaking Bad, Mad Men), FX (Sons of Anarchy, American Horror Story) and pay-cable outlets. By this time next year, TNT will have premiered similarly serialized efforts from such superproducers as Howard Gordon (Homeland), Michael Bay (Black Sails) and Steven Bochco (NYPD Blue).

"It's additive and not reductive," says Turner Networks president and head of programming Michael Wright. "We're not displacing these procedurals. We're loyal to that audience."

Still, the move is a result of encouraging experimentation. TNT's demo ratings champ is outlier Falling Skies, a post-apocalyptic alien drama from Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks TV that averaged a strong 2.6 million viewers in the 18-to-49 demographic and 3 million in the network's desirable adults 25-to-54 demo during its third season. "Falling Skies was a test for us," says Wright, "to see if, on Sunday nights, we could take other audiences that were already coming to the network -- specifically for sports and movies but not necessarily transferring to our procedurals -- and bring them to an original series."

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Those hopefuls -- including Gordon's spy thriller Legends, Bay's nuclear-fallout book adaptation The Last Ship and Bochco's single-case mystery Murder in the First -- are expected to get traditional series launches. But the network is banking on the calendar year-end's swelling HUT (households using television) levels and the current miniseries boom to give Mob City a three-week rollout. The fast-and-furious delivery also hedges bets on audience willingness to support such a tonal departure. "[Noir] is a very specific vocabulary that some love, some don't know and hopefully only a minority don't like," admits Wright. "We're only asking for three weeks of their lives."

TNT's shift has been well-received in Hollywood creative circles, especially its willingness to explore serial narratives. "Michael has really encouraged us to embrace the conspiracy aspect of the story and not to worry about stand-alone [elements]," says Gordon. Legends, which centers on a spy (Sean Bean) tackling an identity crisis while assuming a new identity for each job, was developed twice at NBC before landing at TNT and will premiere in mid-2014. "He wants to hold on to TNT's identity as they evolve it," says Gordon of Wright. "Part of that is creating a more immersive experience for the audience."

The diversification of TNT's portfolio was somewhat unavoidable given its move toward a year-round programming schedule. Adding hours has included a hit-and-miss push into unscripted -- the network will premiere six reality series during the coming months -- while beefing up scripted options in the winter has proved humbling for the migrated Dallas reboot and fatal for the canceled Southland and David E. Kelley's blink-and-you-missed-it Monday Mornings. Even as the summer procedural has remained TNT's bread and butter on Mondays and Tuesdays, nothing has stacked up to landmark hit The Closer, which averaged a record 8.7 million viewers at the end of its seven-season run and won star Kyra Sedgwick an Emmy. Awards glory otherwise has eluded the network.

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Meanwhile, AMC and FX have used their serialized critical favorites to lure younger audiences. But Wright maintains TNT isn't simply fishing for awards. "I think prestige is in the eye of the beholder, and there are many different beholders," he says, adding that the new series won't be accompanied by the aggressive awards courting done by some of his competitors. "The strategy here is not to chase acclaim. The strategy is to please our audience."

That includes viewers down the line. Netflix and VOD have boosted profitability for serials, but syndication options for older-skewing procedurals are not as lucrative as they once were. Wright notes an intersection between the audiences of Falling Skies and wider-reaching Rizzoli & Isles and Major Crimes, but procedurals clearly speak to a less advertiser-friendly crowd. Falling Skies, which averages 2.7 million fewer viewers than Rizzoli & Isles, nonetheless outperforms its audience leader by 100,000 in the key demo. And given that TNT has no new procedurals on its schedule, its gaze is focused on new viewers.

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