A few years ago, television producers Steven Bochco and Mike Robin were lunching in Beverly Hills when Bochco began lamenting the grim development climate at broadcast networks. Robin, producer of "The Closer," told Bochco he ought to meet TNT's Michael Wright, the executive in charge of original content.
He did. Bochco, the force behind such television classics as "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue," pitched a series about a fundamentally flawed, dysfunctional criminal justice system. Wright said yes almost immediately, and TNT eventually ordered 10 episodes of "Raising the Bar," which Bochco co-wrote with lawyer and author David Feige. The series, to premiere later this year, stars Jane Kaczmarek as a judge and Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Gloria Reuben as attorneys.
Bochco and Robin are part of an unprecedented creative expansion at TNT. Three years ago, the network had two original series in production; now it's developing more than 20 scripts, five of which may air in 2009. Like many cable networks, TNT has snatched up top talent who were either being ignored or were disaffected by management at the broadcast networks.
TNT's ambitious goal is to replace within two years four out of five of its acquired shows -- which include the landmark "Law & Order" franchise -- on its prime-time schedule Monday through Wednesday with original shows, according to Steve Koonin, senior vice president of content creation for TNT and sister stations TBS and TCM.
"The business model that's been in place for 50 years is changing," he said. Advertisers are aware that over the last three years, news, sports, children's programming and original series have all been moving to cable, he said. "Now is the time, and talent is migrating to us." Instead of growing one or two shows a year, he said, "we decided to make the plunge."
On Monday, the network also ordered 13 episodes of "Truth in Advertising," a series produced by the Shephard/Robin Co. and the same team behind TNT's biggest hit, "The Closer."
Rather than a knockoff of AMC's popular "Mad Men" -- as might be assumed -- "Truth" follows two ambitious, funny guys in a modern-day Chicago ad agency, Robin said. Conceived by Wright, the series is written by former admen Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny ("The Closer").
TNT's new slate also includes a modern-day, urban Robin Hood drama, "Leverage," starring Timothy Hutton and created by Dean Devlin ("Independence Day"). Robert Redford is co-producing a family drama, "Generations," about several generations growing up in the same house. Mark Burnett and Ridley Scott are making reality shows about weddings and famous crimes, respectively.
Wright said the creative expansion was based on a grand design catering to TNT's viewers -- the sort of educated Middle Americans who made "The Closer" a hit show. Last year, "The Closer," starring Kyra Sedgwick, became basic cable's most-watched scripted series of all time, with more than 9 million viewers. Its fourth season is scheduled to premiere in July.
"That Middle American sensibility is less a geographical description than a point of view," Wright said. "It's an audience that rejects elitism. They like programming that's accessible but not lowbrow. They know how to buy a ticket to New York or Los Angeles but choose not to."
Koonin even knows their favorite food (hamburger) and flavor of ice cream (chocolate). He had already affixed the "We Know Drama" brand to the network when Wright signed on in 2002. At the time the network was showing mostly reruns of what it called populist movies by such filmmakers as Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott. "These films have specific appeal to the Everyman in all of us," Wright said.
The network deliberately acquired broadcast shows with a similar tone and later used them to lead into its original series. "Law & Order" fans would stay to sample "The Closer," for instance. Live sports (which executives refer to as "male drama") have also been used as a promotional platform.
Wright said he's not concerned with Hollywood hipness. The crime drama series "Saving Grace" and family comedy "The Bill Engvall Show" (on TBS) are both relatable programs with broad appeal, he said.
In choosing show runners for TNT's new slate, Wright, a former producer at CBS, said he tried to apply lessons learned from the late NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff: Create an environment where talent feels compelled to come to you first, and create a commercially supportive environment to help them succeed.
"The mistake is to think you yourself are the talent," he said.
At the same time, he asks prospective show runners if they can write for the TNT audience. Only a few have said no, he said.
Bochco said he had no problem with that, although he hoped "Raising the Bar" might expand that base audience.
Bochco and Robin talked about TNT in a manner reminiscent of the praise that once was reserved for pay cable networks HBO and Showtime.
Because he believes broadcast television has become mired in micromanagement, Bochco said, cable is the only place to find the sort of creative freedom he knew in the 1980s and '90s. He said he was able, for instance, to take a year writing the script with Feige, a first-time screenwriter. Wright, in fact, reminds him of Tartikoff, Bochco said. "He's hugely respectful of what we do.
"When you find a guy like that, you don't want to let go."