TNT searching for next hit

'Men of a Certain Age' is net's best hope for 2009 breakout

TNT might know drama, but does it remember how to launch a hit show?

On Monday night, the network premieres its dramedy series "Men of a Certain Age," which follows a trio of fortysomething guys as they navigate friendships, work and romance. Critics are raving about "Men," which marks Ray Romano's return to television in a starring role.

If the show can draw ratings to match its reviews, it won't be a moment too soon. TNT, the once-dominant basic cable brand, is stuck in a midlife crisis of its own.

Despite making a push for a new hit this year by debuting the most new series in the network's history (five), TNT is nearly flat with 2008, averaging 2.3 million viewers in primetime and a 0.8 rating in the adults 18-49 demographic. Although broadcast has suffered drastic declines during the past four years and basic cable has enjoyed overall growth, TNT hasn't gone along for the ride -- it's still down 11% from its peak, even with modest growth the past couple of years.

Recent months have set some underachieving precedents, with October ranking as TNT's least-watched month since 1995.

Compare those standings to four years ago, when TNT was on top of the basic cable universe, winning quarter after quarter as ad supported cable's most popular and highest-rated network. TNT's potent combination of mixing sports coverage, second-run movies and second-run crime dramas provided a template for competitors to follow. Its original series, "The Closer," was an industry-rocking phenomenon. Although FX's "The Shield" already had proved a basic cable network can produce a critical hit, "Closer" showed that ad-supported cablers could draw viewership numbers that were within shouting distance of broadcast.

TNT still brags about "Closer" and enjoys taking shots at the Big Four networks, but it has been unable to replicate the procedural drama's success.

As top rival USA has cranked out new hits including "Burn Notice," "Royal Pains" and "In Plain Sight," TNT's medical series "Heartland," Steven Bochco's legal series "Raising the Bar" and Madison Avenue drama "Trust Me" have come and gone. The Holly Hunter-starring "Saving Grace" showed promise but couldn't perform without its "Closer" lead-in and will have its final season next year. Jerry Bruckheimer's freshman cop drama "Dark Blue" struggled, though is expected to squeak out a renewal. The network's first reality series, Mark Burnett's "Wedding Day," fizzled during its summer debut.

Among TNT's newer shows, "Hawthorne" -- one of the network's five freshman series this year, with "Dark Blue, "Trust Me," "Wedding Day" and "Men" -- and the sophomore "Leverage" have been renewed for another season. Both have been solid performers but average about half as many viewers as "Closer."

Which leaves "Men" as the network's best new hope to close the year with a breakout hit.

Even with strong reviews and Romano's star power, "Men," a relationship dramedy, is by no means a slam dunk for a network whose original programming has been powered by procedurals.

If TNT can pull it off, the network could be re-energized, and several components are in place to pick up momentum. It has ordered pilots for an alien-invasion drama from Steven Spielberg, with Noah Wyle as the lead, and a quirky cop drama from George Clooney starring Jason Lee. With "Southland" hitting the air next year and "The Mentalist" coming to the network in a couple of years, all TNT needs is a spark.