It's got to be scary when the CEO of one of the biggest media companies publicly singles out the network you’ve been running for almost a year as one whose ratings and ad revenue he’s not satisfied with.
“I try not to focus on the pressure,” says Chris Linn, president and head of programming at Turner Broadcasting’s TruTV, which was losing about 20% of its viewers when he was hired last year. In the last few months, ratings have plunged another 30%. SNL Kagan estimates that TruTV’s advertising revenue dropped 3% to $218 million in 2013. Cash flow fell 22% to $59.7 million, Kagan figures.
Those numbers prompted Jeff Bewkes, CEO of Turner parent Time Warner, speaking to investors in April, to declare that there had been a “significant drop-off in performance” at TruTV. But, he added, new leadership and a slate of innovative new programming give him “great confidence in TruTV and in our ability to materially improve its monetization over time.”
Linn joined TruTV, from MTV where he worked on reality programs ranging from Jersey Shore to Catfish. In TruTV, he says he saw a chance to “wipe the slate clean and move forward with a new approach. It’s really quite liberating to be able to take the kinds of risks we’re taking.” He adds that while it’s hard to watch TruTV’s ratings drop each month, “we’re very much on schedule and there will be a significant change on-air later this year.”
After a successful rebrand turned Court TV into reality oriented TruTV, the network’s programming became narrow and predictable. “The reason why some of the audience has moved away from the channel is it’s just too much of the same things over and over again,” Linn says. “When I joined there were three pawn shows, three towing shows and two container shows on the air and that was the bulk of their programming.”
Linn says he believes audiences want to be stimulated and surprised. While airing mostly its old shows, TruTV announced a slate of six newly greenlit shows during the upfront and said it had 30 new projects in development. “I’m thrilled that Turner has given me the time to build up a robust new slate so that later this year when we launch the new TruTV, it will be like we’re flipping a switch and its going to be new.” He says in the fourth quarter, the network’s primetime will be nearly all series and new episodes.
In the Market for Funseekers
The new programming is aimed at a target audience that’s younger, more affluent and more gender balanced than the network previously attracted. Linn calls the viewers he seeks “funseekers.” Within the 18-49 demo he’s aiming for 35- to 40-year-olds who are becoming adults, accepting responsibility and preferring to look at content through a more fun, comedic lens.
“When we talk about our new content, we say everything on-air should feel like a fun ride, a fun ride for grownups,” he says.
At the same time, with millennials entering the demo, the network is striving for authenticity, which means having programs that are well-executed, fully motivate and consistent, Linn says. Now, the network’s reality shows are “often accused of being staged and overproduced,” he says.
While TruTV is attracting fewer viewers, the viewers in its new sweet spot seem to be attracted to new shows such as Impractical Jokers, which was renewed, and The Carbonaro Effect, which launched in April.
Those shows were “sort of the canary in the coal mine for us,” Linn says. Importantly, viewers are sharing parts of those shows with friends. “You need the audience to advocate for your content,” he adds.
Some of the new shows coming to the network are very different from what’s on the air now. One, Fake-Off, is a Kabuki-inspired pop culture competition series. Another, Friends of the People, is a scripted sketch comedy.
Others are more mainstream and, more importantly, advertiser-friendly. You don’t get more advertiser-friendly than Motor City Masters, coproduced by General Motors’ media agency.
TruTV will also continue to get NCAA basketball tournament games, although Kagan analyst Derek Baine says TruTV has seen little ratings benefits from March Madness. Linn agrees that this year, the network wasn’t able to take advantage of the big promotional platform. “We simply weren’t ready yet. Next year we certainly will be,” he says.
Linn is confident that once the new programming and branding launches in the fourth quarter, the network will start to show steady growth. His goal is also to elevate the perception of TruTV. “We want to break out of that downscale, repetitive play and build a brand that breaks out of the pack. That’s equally important, along with the ratings.”