Turner Broadcasting is getting a makeover.
For years, the parent company of cable channels TBS, CNN, TNT, Cartoon Network, HLN and TruTV was one of the more stable and low-key units of Time Warner Inc. Based in Atlanta, Turner seldom gets as much attention as Time Warner’s Warner Bros. and HBO, despite being a cash cow that last year had operating profit of $3.5 billion and revenue of almost $10 billion.
But the new leaders at Turner -- Chief Executive John Martin and President David Levy are shaking things up. There have been several high-profile departures this year -- some voluntary and some not -- and Levy has promised that more changes are in the works.
“Change is happening across our company now,” Levy told Turner staffers in a memo Sunday. “These changes reflect a larger plan to evolve Turner for next-generation success and profitability. This effort will bring new voices to the conversation and reveal things we can and should do differently.”
The most recent to exit is Steve Koonin, the president of Turner Entertainment Networks who Sunday announced that he is joining the Atlanta Hawks basketball team as chief executive and a co-owner. Koonin oversaw programming for all the Turner channels except CNN and HLN, which are news and talk outlets.
Last month, Stu Snyder, the longtime head of Turner Animation, exited after six years. Also leaving as part of a restructuring was Greg D’Alba, the longtime head of CNN’s advertising sales unit.
“Each departure had its own unique circumstance,” Levy said in an interview, adding that Koonin had an incredible opportunity that is a “great fit for him.” Levy also said despite talk of tensions between he and Koonin that “there’s no bad blood or anything of that nature.”
At the same time, Levy stressed a need for new ideas at Turner Broadcasting.
“It gives us an opportunity for fresh thinking,” he said adding that the unit has to “refocus ourselves.”
Of particular concern is TNT, which has struggled somewhat in developing hit original shows while rival cable networks including FX and AMC have found success with envelope-pushing programs such as “Sons of Anarchy” and “Breaking Bad,” respectively. TNT’s prime time audience has fallen more than 13% in the past five years to 1.9 million viewers from 2.2 million, according to Nielsen. Its median age is up to almost 52 from 47 during the same period.
TNT has had a more broad-based programming strategy and has tended to steer clear of the risque fare on many other channels. The network still hasn’t filled the void left when its popular police drama “The Closer” ended two years ago. Its spin-off “Major Crimes” and “Rizzoli and Isles, another law enforcement themed drama, are successful, but a remake of “Dallas” started strong but faded and the odds of comeback are even longer since the death of star Larry Hagman last year.
Later this year, TNT will debut a legal drama called “Murder in the First,” from famed producer Steven Bochco whose credits include “NYPD Blue” and “L.A. Law.” Levy indicated that he is open to Turner having more cutting edge shows, but ratings rather than awards will drive strategy.
At TBS, which focuses on comedy, the network has also had problems developing breakthrough shows. But thanks to the popularity of reruns of the CBS hit “The Big Bang Theory,” it has had solid ratings. This season, it is averaging 1.9 million viewers in prime time, up 8% from five years ago. It is also home to Conan O’Brien’s late night show.
However, while TBS was the top network in adults 18-49 for the first quarter of this year, the median age for the channel has gone up dramatically from 36.4 to 43.6 over the last five years. Advertisers pay a premium for younger viewers.
TruTV’s prime-time audience has tumbled more than 30% over the past five years. The channel focuses its efforts on unscripted fare, a very competitive arena.
The search for Koonin’s replacement will not be limited to internal candidates, Levy said. Nor would the next executive necessarily work out of Atlanta, which was where Koonin was based. Both Levy and Martin spend the bulk of their time in New York and the next entertainment chief could be there or Los Angeles.
Although there has been speculation that Michael Wright, the president of programming for TNT and TBS may be on the way out too, Levy said Wright is a candidate for Koonin’s job and “somebody we’re going to look at for sure.”
Besides better programming, the other major priority for Levy is locking down a renewal of TNT’s deal with the NBA. TNT’s current contract still has two seasons to go after this season, but the new sports channel Fox Sports 1 has made no secret of its desire to get the NBA.
“I certainly hope to continue that relationship,” Levy said, adding “we’re pretty entwined with the NBA.” Levy knows that the next contract won’t be cheap. “There is definitely going to be an increase,” he said.