Turner upfront and center

Cabler expands slates for TNT, TBS and TruTV

Turner Entertainment Networks is crashing the broadcast networks' upfront party.

The company said Monday that its cable networks TNT, TBS and TruTV will hold their upfront presentations in New York on May 14, during the week of the broadcast upfronts.

At the same time, Turner announced several "major initiatives" for all three networks, including TNT's plans to move toward an all-original Monday-Wednesday primetime schedule — along with an expansion into unscripted programming — by 2010.

Turner will outline those and other plans to advertisers May 14, the day of CBS' presentation, at 9:30 a.m. in the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York. (CBS' upfront starts at 3 p.m.)

The news comes at a tough time for the broadcasters, which are facing uncertainty over pilot season as well as the future of their own glitzy upfront presentations. All broadcast networks have said they plan to scale back their events this year, while NBC won't hold a traditional upfront show and instead will announce a 52-week program schedule in April.

On the other hand, cable has been riding a wave of creativity and record-breaking ratings for its original programming while operating on more of a year-round schedule and ordering fewer pilots that it can nurture to series — a model broadcasters are looking to emulate.

Shows like TNT's record-breaking "The Closer," whose third-season finale drew nearly 10 million viewers in September, have demonstrated that cable can successfully compete with the ratings on broadcast.

Turner Entertainment Networks president Steve Koonin said his company, which he noted is the only major cable outlet without a corporate broadcast network sibling, made the aggressive move for its upfront because the timing felt right.

"Because of the strike and the uncertainty about pilot (season), we saw an opportunity," Koonin said. "We shot all our pilots before the strike, or had everything planned before the strike, so we're in a unique situation where we can offer broadcast-quality shows, ratings and reach in a branded cable environment."

Typically, the cable networks present in the weeks leading up to the broadcast presentations. FX and Lifetime said Monday that they will stick with that timetable. As part of NBC Uni's recently announced upfront plans, the company will hold an event during upfront week in New York that will showcase NBC as well as cable networks USA, Sci Fi Channel, Bravo and Oxygen.

TNT, TBS and TruTV are aggressively ramping up their original programming slates. TNT, whose goal is to shift its Monday-Wednesday primetime schedule to an all-original lineup by 2010, has 14 series in development, including a mixture of scripted dramas and unscripted programs.

Michael Wright, the top programmer at TNT and TBS, said plans are to program originals from 8-11 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, including a mix of premiere runs and repeat episodes. The schedule also will continue to feature NBA telecasts as well as acquired movies on Friday nights and weekends.

"Once we're into a year-round schedule — by the middle of next year — anytime during the year you'll find first-run episodes mixed in with encores of your favorites," he said.

Wright said TNT's expansion — into additional nights of original programming as well as into unscripted territory — is a "natural step" in the channel's evolution following the success of "Closer" and the successful launch of companion "Grace."

"The combination of the success of those two shows as well as a lot of other limited series and programs gave us the confidence to say that the time is right to expand into a much more aggressive original strategy," he said. "But most importantly, it's all about talent."

Among those developing scripted series at TNT are Robert Redford and John Sacret Young ("The West Wing"); Mark Frost ("Twin Peaks"); and Angelo Pizzo and David Anspaugh ("Hoosiers").

Meanwhile, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Mark Burnett, Mark Wolper, former NBA star Kenny Smith and Gay Rosenthal are among those developing a range of reality projects at the network.

Wright said that in looking for projects for TNT's first unscripted development slate, he identified those that would easily fit in with TNT's drama-centric schedule and revolved around one of three themes: crime and punishment, aspirational storytelling, and interesting people and places.

"We're trying to capture the middle-American, Everyman spirit with programs for real people who want to see their lives reflected on television," he said.

That strategy also applies to TBS, which is looking to ramp up its late-night presence with "contemporary, smart, clever, feel-good, funny shows that serve as an antidote to the snarky, angry comedy that is out there," Wright said. In primetime, he is hoping to find a series that's compatible with last summer's breakout hit, "The Bill Engvall Show."
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