Steve Koonin sees opportunity in comedy

TBS head gives speech at Just Comedy conference

MONTREAL -- Given a decline in comedic film and TV content in the U.S. in recent years, "there is a big opportunity in comedy," Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment Networks and head of TBS, said here Thursday.

Kicking off the inaugural Just Comedy industry conference, Koonin's speech Thursday morning packed a conference room at the Hyatt Regency with more than 100 folks from across the funny business.

They saw the comedy guru discuss his programming strategy while also surprise them by showing off his own comedic skills. Only 5% of U.S. television content is currently made up of sitcoms, or less than 10% including reruns, Koonin told his audience. Similarly, five years ago, comedies made up about 50% of the box office, compared to less than a third today, he added.

Overall, this trend may be "frightening," but also presents an opportunity as it has made comedy "a rare asset, a precious asset" that can elevate players that take the funny business seriously, Koonin said.

He highlighted that TBS with its "Very Funny" tagline is focused on "feel-good relatable comedy." He added: "We are not edgy or snarky."

Asked if TBS has looked at bringing Jay Leno to the cable network next year once his contract ends, Koonin said the late-night star remains a better fit for broadcast networks and potentially a syndication deal.

TBS's comedy strategy has continued to boost the Turner network, with its ratings up 16% in the first quarter and 34% among people 18-34, Koonin said in his speech. This has left the Time Warner network 75% above Comedy Central in primetime, he pointed out. Koonin, however, did not miss the opportunity to give his competition kudos for its work.

Second-quarter audience trends at TBS continued to be strong, Koonin said, adding the majority of network growth this year has come from attracting under-served audiences, such as African-American comedy fans.

Online video views are also exploding, with having hit 39 million views year-to-date, he said.

Koonin Thursday lauded the network's mix of comedy classics, such as "Seinfeld," and original programming. And he predicted that TBS originals "Tyler Perry's House of Payne" and "The Bill Engvall Show" will be big in syndication one day.

Koonin earned laughs from the Just Comedy crowd with some anecdotes.

In one tongue-in-cheek moment, he mentioned that TBS was the brain child of "this lunatic Ted Turner." He went on to laud the maverick Turner as a visionary and industry pioneer who had seen opportunities in niches others had ignored for too long. Later on, Koonin also joked that while Turner had left the Time Warner empire a while back, he was still here.

Koonin also joked that while TBS continues to grow, "we all know how well we're doing" at parent TW. When only parts of the audience reacted with laughs, he added a reference to the parent's (and other media giants') continuing decline in market value: "A few who hold Time Warner stock nervously laughed."