Off-Net Syndies Buoy TBS

Mar 6, 2006  •  Post A Comment

While there’s nothing very funny about the dearth of original programming on TBS, some industry experts say the network’s recent failed efforts have done little to affect its robust bottom line-thanks to a stockpile of powerhouse syndicated off-network acquisitions.

It’s been nearly two years since Turner rebranded TBS as a comedy destination with the “very funny” tagline, seeking a more coherent image for the sister network to drama kingpin TNT. The network ordered a reality-comedy hybrid slate that included “The Real Gilligan’s Island,” “Outback Jack,” “He’s a Lady,” “Minding the Store” and “Daisy Does America.” But only “Gilligan’s” pulled enough interest to return for a second season.

Today, looking at the top basic cable networks, TBS is one of the few highly rated nonsports entertainment channels that does not have a single recurring original series (similarly nostalgia-driven, old-sitcom-heavy TV Land lacks original series, but unlike TBS it hasn’t been trying very hard to launch new series, having greenlighted its first original only last year).

“We felt two years ago that we could create comedic reality that would complement our hall-of-fame sitcoms, and that was a miscalculation,” said Steve Koonin, executive VP and chief operating officer of TNT and TBS.

Most networks would be engaged in serious introspection right now with such a batting average. But the past couple of years have still managed to be a success story for TBS thanks to the rebranding and the acquisition of HBO’s “Sex and the City,” which added to the network’s larder of “Friends” and “Seinfeld” reruns and helped reduce the median age of its viewers.

“Sex” has averaged about 1.7 million viewers per episode, according to Nielsen Media Research (1.2 million in the 18 to 49 demo). For 2005 the network’s overall viewership was down 2 percent, yet up 4 percent among 18- to 34-year-olds versus the previous year.

“‘Sex and the City’ changed everything about TBS,” Mr. Koonin said. “In 18 to 34, TBS beat MTV last year. That’s astounding. We’re continuing to pound that drum. Our whole plan is to get younger. ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ is 10 years younger on TBS than it was on CBS.”

Experts were divided on whether the lack of originals could hurt the channel. Cable programming consultant Ray Solley said, “You don’t need to add frosting to the cake.”

“TBS used to be this national independent station with movies and tons of reruns,” he said. “It worked then and works now. People don’t feel the need to go to TBS for originals.”

Kagan Senior Analyst Derek Baine agreed. “They have been very successful in getting big license fee increases so they haven’t really suffered any margin erosion,” he said. “Despite their heavy investment in programming with no ratings gain, cash flow growth has been steady due to the healthy affiliate revenue stream-and their ad revenues haven’t suffered.”

But Brad Adgate, senior VP of research for Horizon Media, said the lack of interest in TBS originals could be a problem down the line and noted advertisers generally pay more for a similarly rated original series than for an off-network rerun.

“It’s a cause for concern because down the road there’s a dearth of off-network comedies that are going to be as funny as ‘Friends’ and ‘Seinfeld,’ so there’s a concern that [the] programming pipeline could dry up,” Mr. Adgate said.

Mr. Koonin, however, saw the lack of network comedies as a half-full glass. “With the dearth of comedies, we’ve become an oasis,” Mr. Koonin said. “‘Friends’ and ‘Seinfeld’ have repeatability.”

Still, any network banking primarily on the draw of three shows that are no longer in production needs to have a pipeline full of something. TBS’s current pilots are contemporary scripted efforts such as “Better Than Normal” (the life of a junior high school student), “My Boys” (the dating adventures of a 20-something tomboy) and “The Jeff Garlin Program” (a show-within-a-show comedy with Mr. Garlin as a TV host). Mr. Koonin said the shows are more to “illuminate the brand” than to supplement its slate.

“What we have learned from our fans is that our sitcoms are our strength,” Mr. Koonin said. “They want programming that warms their heart and tickles their funnybone.”

Sam Armando, VP and director of television research for Starcom, said he expects TBS’s fortunes to turn around.

“TBS has obviously seemed like a network that’s been around forever,” he said. “But if you look at them as a 2-year-old network since their rebrand, we wouldn’t be surprised by all the repurposed programming. I expect TBS in the coming year to have an onslaught of originals.”