Koonin Marries Vision to Passion

Turner COO rebrands TBS and TNT as key TV destinations

It's the real thing. Not Coke. TV. Just ask Steve Koonin, who turned a lifelong passion into a career move. After 14 years at Coca-Cola, Koonin left the company in 2000 to join Turner Entertainment Networks. Now the executive vice president and COO of TBS and TNT owns 16 televisions and stays up until 2 a.m. watching his favorite programs and thumbing through newspapers in search of show ideas.

“I saw an opportunity to expand my creative chops,” he says, explaining his decision. “I bring experience in branding to Turner, and the marriage has worked.”

Since joining Turner, he has been instrumental in strategically rebranding both networks. TNT is positioned as the home for drama. The slogan “We Know Drama” showcases its off-net dramas and movies and sports. Conversely, TBS employs the “very funny” tagline to highlight its early-evening block of sitcoms and reality fare.

Koonin has also creatively packaged and scheduled each network's programming, doubling TNT's daytime viewers by airing prime time dramas during the day, and dropping TBS' prime time median age from 41 to 39. His formula: shift movies to the weekend, put original reality in prime alongside lifestyle shows and acquire sitcoms, such as Sex and the City.

“Steve is intellectually provocative. He surrounds himself with smart people, provides solid direction, then lets them do their job,” says Mark Lazarus, president of the Turner Entertainment Group.

Koonin, in turn, praises his creative marketing team at Turner, which is responsible for producing its TV promos in-house. “Something you nurture and tend to is a better product than something mass-produced.”

And Koonin is all about homegrown success.

The University of Georgia graduate got his degree in marketing, then made beverages something of a business specialty. He was a marketing manager for Hiram Walker Distillers, maker of Canadian Club whiskey, before joining the promotions department of Coca-Cola in 1986. Koonin ended his Coke tenure as senior vice president, marketing, when he was recruited by Turner brass. Working on two Coke-sponsored Turner specials—the World Cup '94 celebration and the ShoWest Awards—he caught the eye of top management. Indeed, he credits the personal touch for any ongoing business success.

Koonin is openly devoted to the talent he partners with on original series, one of his primary duties at the networks. TNT has three new pilots in the works and is well into production on Steven Spielberg's Into the West, a 12-hour limited series about two families settling the West. On TBS, Koonin is excited about this month's premiere of The Real Gilligan's Island, a reality take-off on the original show.

“Executives don't make hit shows, talent does,” he says. “My job is to make sure it's a great experience for them.”

That includes tagging along with William H. Macy to the Sarasota Film Festival to attend a screening of the actor's original drama, The Wool Cap, which premieres Nov. 21 on TNT. Koonin is happy to spend half the night talking marketing plans with mega reality producer Mike Fleiss (The Bachelor), who executive-produced The Real Gilligan's Island. And he's equally jazzed about pushing video-on-demand and broadband, citing a successful partnership with Comcast to promote Gilligan's.

Some things about TV have surprised the affable marketing wiz, known for soliciting laughs from his family and co-workers. He enjoys the immediate feedback that comes with the daily ratings. And he says his most valuable TV lesson is: Even hits can struggle to keep their audience.

“People intend to watch, but life gets in the way,” Koonin says. “TiVo enhances your ability to watch.” The proud owner of four TiVos, he never misses The Sopranos, Monday Night Football, Sex and the City, American Idol, Will & Grace and Without a Trace, among others. Friday and Saturday, however, are sacrosanct. They mean fishing expeditions or enjoying time with his wife of 20 years, Eydie, and their two teenagers.

Balancing work and family time is a lesson he learned from his now 70-year-old mother, a real estate broker who juggled a demanding workload with home life. “She gave me my work ethic. She's super-successful and still figured out a way to always be there for us,” he says. “I'm all about family comes first.”