The Law & Order machine has gotten so big that NBC Universal is considering launching a crime channel backed by Universal's Law & Order fare. But that network would be missing the most popular Law & Order iteration: TNT has cable rights to the original locked up through 2012.
But, while Law & Order may be TNT's franchise player, routinely attracting more than 3 million viewers per episode, the net's success comes from more than one show.
The deep-pocketed Turner net boasts marquee fare across its schedule, including the National Basketball Association and NASCAR, off-net dramas like Charmed and Judging Amy, and theatrical and original movies.
TNT has reigned as the top cable net in total viewers and adults 18-49 and 25-54 for three straight quarters. (Only Fox News during the Iraq war and ESPN with football and baseball in September have bested TNT.)
And many of those viewers are attracted by more than just Law & Order.
"The average Law & Order watcher is only watching nine episodes on TNT annually," says Steve Koonin, executive vice president and COO for TNT and TBS Superstation. "The secret is multiple shows that together create so much reach."
TNT stole Law & Order away from A&E in 2001 (ratings have about doubled since then), paying about $700,000 per episode for shows that hadn't aired on A&E. That's a real deal compared with more-recent off-net pacts. Sister net TBS Superstation just anted up the same amount for rights to HBO's Sex and the City.
Media buyer Andy Donchin, senior vice president of Carat North America, says TNT is more than a one-trick pony. "They've been very proactive in bringing new stuff to network with original movies, premiere movies and off-network fare." He acknowledges, though, that "Law & Order is a great franchise to build around."
TNT buys more off-net fare than its competitors. And it uses the product somewhat differently. Most off-nets, including Judging Amy, ER and Angel, air out of prime. Some other nets would use such shows squarely in fringe or prime. TNT even shares two shows, The X-Files and NYPD Blue, with other cable nets, which run them in prime.
On acquisitions, Koonin says, "Buy what you need, use what you buy. We are buying for need and building, not to collect trophies."
Under Koonin, a former marketing executive for Coca-Cola, the channel has been nurturing a drama brand. What ESPN is to sports, TNT aspires to be for drama. But he doesn't want TNT to be overly dependent on any one show, even if it is Law & Order. "A lot of our competitors are trying to build their brand around a schedule. We are trying to build a schedule around a brand."
Of course, Koonin's definition of drama is malleable. Acquired network shows like Law & Order
and ER are clearly dramas. But the NBA? Pro golf?
Also, rivals like USA Network and FX get a lot of ink for their original series, one area in which TNT has stumbled. Its most recent entry, Witchblade, was solid but not a breakout and had some problems on the set. In 2001, short-lived Wall Street drama Bull appeared just as the market turned bearish, and Breaking News
never made it to air. TNT's original movies and miniseries—most recently, Emmy-winner Door to Door—are well-received events but don't come more than once a month.
Koonin is intent on reviving original scripted development to add another weapon: "I want original series," he insists. "I just want the right ones for us."
For TNT, that means non-traditional projects. Koonin doesn't want to sink money into a 22-episode series just because that is the studios' order pattern.
One example will be the Steven Spielberg-produced 12-episode series about the American West for 2005. It is slated for the summer, when cable nets traditionally can attract their biggest audiences. That way, Koonin hopes, TNT can create appointment viewing and sustain a marketing message.
He likes experimenting in the summer. Last summer, TNT repurposed NBC's Boomtown. It gave TNT fresh programming and NBC a marketing opportunity. Although ratings on TNT were good, NBC put the show on hiatus just a few weeks into this season. Still, Koonin says he'd like to do more deals like that.
TNT also approaches scheduling a bit differently. Rather than stripping Law & Order every night, the drama is stacked on Mondays and Tuesdays.
"The best lead-in for Law & Order is Law & Order,"
Koonin explains. Viewers are more likely to stick around for multiple episodes. And, with big audiences early in the week, TNT can promote the rest of its schedule.
Each night is a little different. After Law & Order on Tuesdays, there are repurposed episodes of Charmed. Thursday nights, there's the NBA. On Wednesdays are classic movies; Fridays, big theatrical premieres. By limiting its movie nights, TNT doesn't have to work its library quite as hard.
The play pattern scores with viewers. In its target 18-49 demo, so far this year, TNT wins four out of seven nights a week, according to Nielsen data. On the remaining three nights, TNT comes in second. And among total viewers, TNT wins Tuesdays and places second on five nights.