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Upfronts: Turner has big stars, now wants big bucks

May 19, 2010 | 11:50 am

Turner Broadcasting is banking on its stable of stars and producers -- Steven Spielberg, John Wells, Ice Cube, Kyra Sedgwick, Ray Romano, Dylan McDermott, Timothy Hutton, Jada Pinkett Smith, George Lopez, and now Conan O’Brien -- to vault its cable entertainment networks, TNT and TBS, into the big leagues of television.

"I really believe in basic cable television,” O’Brien told hundreds of advertisers Wednesday during Turner’s presentation of its new and returning programming at the Hammerstein theater in mid-town Manhattan.  “I think basic television is what makes this country great. I do not want to live in a country with less than six ESPNs.”

Two years ago, Time Warner’s cable channels horned into what had long been one week in May exclusively set aside for broadcasters to unveil their fall schedules and throw lavish parties to woo advertisers. Turner continued that drumbeat on Wednesday, saying that it deserves to be treated like one of the big boys along with broadcasters Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC, in a world that increasingly does not differentiate between broadcast and cable channels.

"The playing field has leveled,” said Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment Networks.  “We have more original programming on TNT and TBS than ever before.  ... We have more than earned our admission ticket.”

Now, it’s up to Turner to persuade advertisers that they should shell out considerably more money than they have been paying to buy commercials on the two channels. After all, if the Hollywood creative community, and producers including Spielberg, have already migrated to cable, so why shouldn’t advertisers?

Turner also trumpeted its expanding lineup of sports properties.  Last month, the Time Warner-owned cable operation entered into a $10.8-billion deal for the rights to the NCAA's "March Madness" college basketball tournament in partnership with CBS.

But the biggest catch for Turner was swooping in to snatch  O’Brien after he famously stepped down from the “Tonight Show” on NBC in January when the peacock network decided to shuffle Jay Leno back to late night.

“If anyone here can explain what happened four months ago, I’m thrilled to hear it. I’ll be out in the lobby afterward, I’m all ears,” O’Brien told the advertisers.  “The plot for 'Lost' is more plausible than the last year has been.”

O’Brien later told reporters that he has not decided who will be his first guest for the premiere of his show on TBS, which begins Nov. 8.   “Haven’t thought about it,” O’Brien said, adding that “There is no way the show won’t be influenced by what I’ve gone through.”  He joked that the NBC fiasco made him “more of a man.”

Turner is pushing George Lopez’s talk show on TBS to midnight from 11 p.m. to make room for O’Brien. “We’re going to come to work an hour later, and still get the same pay.  It’s a Latino dream come true,” Lopez told advertisers.

Turner also unveiled several new shows, including comedies developed for TBS “Are We There Yet?” with Ice Cube and Terry Crews, “Glory Daze” with Tim Meadows and a new animated series called “Neighbors From Hell.”

TNT this summer is returning its slate of proven dramas, including “The Closer,” with Kyra Sedgwick, “Saving Grace” with Holly Hunter, “Dark Blue” with Dylan McDermott; “Leverage” with Timothy Hutton, and “Hawthorne” with Pinkett Smith. Later this year, it will run the second season of the critics’ darling, “Men of a Certain Age,” with Ray Romano, Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula.

It also promoted two new dramas -- “Memphis Beat,” a new cop show with Jason Lee and Alfre Woodard, and “Rizzoli and Isles” with Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander.

“We are going to offer original programming four nights a week,” said Michael Wright, head of programming for TBS, TNT and Turner Classic Movies. “We are primed for an amazing year.”

Then, next year, the network will roll out a new alien invasion series from Spielberg, starring Noah Wylie from “ER,” called “Fallen Skies.”  And Wells’ Los Angeles police drama “Southland,” which NBC ordered last year but then canceled, will return in the winter with new episodes.

Koonin took a moment during the presentation “to thank a certain NBC employee,” for bringing “two critically acclaimed shows” to Turner -- “Southland” and O’Brien. Then, behind Koonin, a picture of a smirking Jay Leno flashed on the giant screen.

-- Meg James and Joe Flint

Photo: Conan O'Brien. Credit: Dimitrios Kambouris Getty Images.


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