They May Have Known Drama. Now Who Knows What They Know?

It was really not all that long ago when TNT was often the most-viewed cable network, and produced more than enough volume to give justification to their self-proclaimed description “We know drama”.  You can debate whether or not you believe any network that utilized THE CLOSER as the standard for which all other series were measured against, both in terms of common audience for other shows on their schedule and qualitative testing cohorts for those that aspired to join them.   Lord knows a lot of the folks who I worked with and for at FX had strong opinions; mostly disbelief that Kyra Sedgwick was at times getting as many as twice as many viewers watching her make criminals crack than Michael Chilkis and Walton Goggins were on THE SHIELD.  The teams at USA Network that built their own drama franchise with the “blue sky” approach that to this day endures with the likes of SUITS, but also provided the world still-remembered gems like MONK  and PSYCH, were often locked in pyrrhic and spirited battled for talent and advertisers, particularly the more budget-conscious and skittish that for years shied away from FX’s shows for reasons that were eventually beaten down when the awards and media accolade created the brand halo that endures for them to this day.

Which is why it is for me particularly disheartening to look at their lineup this week, at the outset of the crucial “hard eight” period ramping up to Christmas when they often put forward climactic episodes of continuing shows, would opportunistically launch new ones and utilize their stronger movie titles (many from corporate cousin Warner Brothers) to promote them, and see a season-opening gender-friendly regular season college basketball doubleheader and three NHL games as the only original content on their schedule.

Look, no one questions that sports has a place on mainstream TV networks, certainly not the architechts of the Turner networks’ legacies.  When TNT was being created, it shared the first-ever NFL Sunday night package with ESPN, and those games were a significant reason why the network even got carriage.  It has been in partnership with the NBA since the 80s and greatly benefits from the once-in-a-generation chemistry that the talented group at INSIDE THE NBA demonstrate each week to sports fans that reaches far more significant levels during the playoffs.  Indeed, Turner has successfully utilized tentpole post-season sports like the NBA and MLB playoffs and, more recently, March Madness to provide a highly-viewed launching pad for many of its originals, often nesting airings of these shows just after the post-game shows’ sign-0ffs and having enough trickle-down audience to provide a significant amount of sampling and promotion for their regularly scheduled time slot.    And it can be argued with more than modest credibility that post-season sports certainly qualifies as “dramatic”.    Regular season matchups are the price one pays for such bellweather events, and at least in the case of the NBA Turner’s package and its shoulder programming has benefitted their brand and bottom line well.

But when I looked last night and saw last year’s NCAA women’s champion LSU going through the motions of its season opener, eventually being blown out by #20 Colorado by 24 points to become the first college basketball championship team in nearly 30 years to lose on opening night as it celebrated their title, and saw a #21-ranked USC men’s team deliver a half-hearted effort against (arguably) the second-best college team in Kansas, on a night (and day) where virtually every other sports network and dozens of supplemental ESPN-owned streams were covering more than 200 different season openers for Division I teams?  And knowing full well what the audience upside for something like this is?

Sobering would only begin to describe my reaction.  And much as I tried to justify what could have possessed Turner Sports to consider this a worthwhile venture, even in a week where the NBA’s self-imposed Election Day hiatus denied TNT a game, I just couldn’t find a way to embrace it.   Was there a realistic chance that social network superstar Angel Reese was going to bring her fan base to the network?  Did anyone think the 9 million viewers that their semifinal showdown with Caitlin Clark and Iowa from last spring’s Final Four would be challenged, even by a school as hot as Colorado?  Neither Deion Sanders nor his kids were involved with this sport.  Was there a thought that Bronny James was going to be on a Las Vegas arena floor beginning his one-and-done for USC as so many have predicted he and his dad Lebron will eventually be as NBA teammates?  We’ve known since April that his health issues negated that possibility.  This matchup wasn’t even as compelling or as competitive as the Oregon-Georgia tilt which truTV–another network whose brand health has seen better days–carried in the afternoon.

And all one had to do was look at the size of the crowd that did show up to T-Mobile Arena–all the more compromised by the fact this was held on a Monday night in the heart of the school year–to realize that this was purely a made-for-TV event, and specifically made for FanDuel and DraftKings addicts one at that.

Turner gets a mulligan on the doubling down with the NHL–it’s a niche relative to the NBA, but it does give them the Stanley Cup finals every other year, and it is arguably a cornerstone to their B/R sports tier that for now is being included with MAX but will morph into a $10/month pay offering right around the time their March Madness coverage begins.  Our old friend Yosemite knows the potential for global sports rights and platform adoption; he’s seen quite a bit of success with the likes of Eurosport for his Discovery networks outside the United States.  Assuming MAX is indeed still around in its current form by next spring–never a given with the recent history of the company and its management–that’s a strategy that might yet prove to be a positive.

And to be fair to Zas, even those that preceded him were culpable in the undoing of what was once a powerful brand.  I had a front-row seat to the confounded logic that somehow justified moving the comedically toned revival of THE JOKER’S WILD that Snoop Dogg hosted from TBS, which was at the time the exclusive home for half-hour shows that made you laugh both new and old–to TNT, hoping to boost its struggling audience by giving it a new home.  The potential of nesting it within truTV–which at least was producing comedic, unscripted half-hours that appealed to the JOKER audience–was never given serious consideration by the “braintrust” which contended that TNT’s larger numbers offered more upside.  To me, that’s the McDonald’s Pizza argument, and if you don’t remember that failed experiment, you’re forgiven.  Just because you try to sell something popular somewhere where it doesn’t fit the menu doesn’t mean you will.

My Sony colleagues were stunned at the arrogance and willing ignorance of the Turner executives we attempted to educate with our studies that showed little common viewership of Snoop Dogg with basketball, baseball and dramas.  They believed their own bullsh-t and thought they could somehow turn a network that had built itself into a home for drama into a comedy destination.  The results were horrific.  The show’s demise was accelerated and indeed was history shortly after the move.  The executives that made that call are no longer there, and it’s not simply because of the subsequent mismanagement and debt load of AT&T and now Warner Discovery has inflicted on a once-potent leader.

The current team at Warner Discovery treats TNT, and indeed the balance of what they internally mock as the “T-Nets”, if for no other reason as to “distinguish” them from the “D-Nets” that Zaslav and his Food Network-trained loyalist Kathleen Finch championed as true success as they consolidated their assets, in much the same manner that the MAX home page treated the four meaningless regular season college basketball games did.  Tiles with clickbait.  Little concern with brand fit or actual appeal.   In 2022, TNT fell out of the Top 10 in total viewer delivery and under 1 million average viewers for the first time in years.  2023 will likely see greater erosion and irrelevance.

One can accurately claim that the challenges that TNT faces are existential; heck, EVERY mainstream network is in decline.  But not necessarily to the double-digit proportions that TNT has seen, and certainly not with the kind of tonal whitewashing events like college basketball games in November adds to the undoing.

These little things DO matter, and I’m continually baffled at how executives with the opportunity to be more strategically intelligent about it turn a blind eye or two to any evidence to the contrary.

The folks that championed MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE and relocating JOKER’S WILD weren’t right in hindsight, but at least they had a vision.  I truly can’t even find an excuse for seeing TNT’s lineup include these games, and I don’t envy those who will try and spin the numbers that come out later today.  The LSU women aren’t THAT much of a draw.   Bronny James wouldn’t have been.  Heck, these days, LEBRON isn’t always ratings gold.

The only thing dramatic around TNT these days is the precipitous decline of their once best-in-class ratings and solid brand proposition.  They no longer only don’t know drama, it’s pretty clear they don’t know what they are, period.  Or where they’re going.

Until next time…

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