My own show again
On any network, even Oxygen
I know you think that channel’s only for women,
But I’d change my sex to have my own show again
Instead, it’s thanks to a portly, bespectacled man named Steve Koonin that O’Brien won’t have to go to such lengths. As Turner Entertainment president, the Atlanta native and University of Georgia grad has transformed the house that Turner built into the powerhouse on display today. Snagging the quirky redhead out front is just his latest—albeit his biggest—triumph.
More mensch than magnate, Koonin drinks in the crowd’s hoots and hollers with delight backstage. He’s even proud that some guy in the back of the auditorium keeps shouting, “Play ‘Free Bird’!” (“That’s the big time, you know? Jerry Seinfeld gets hecklers; we don’t get hecklers!”) And why not? After eight years, Koonin is a giant leap closer to his goal: to mold TBS into the funniest place on television.
Back in January, NBC forced Conan O’Brien into a corner: Give up your 11:35 time slot to Jay Leno and move The Tonight Show
to 12:05, or leave. So out on his “Slim Jim” legs O’Brien walked, taking with him his band, his pompadour, his announcer Andy Richter, and the sympathies of a demographic advertisers drool over—eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds. Oh, and he took one more thing: a $32.5 million payout.
But where would he go? From his office in Atlanta, Steve Koonin, like most showbiz players, assumed O’Brien would strike a deal with Fox, whose type of programming—Family Guy
, The Simpsons
(for whom O’Brien used to write)—seemed a good fit for O’Brien’s brand of humor. Landing at a broadcast network would also allow him to stay in the thick of the late-night wars with Leno and David Letterman. And TBS, for its part, had already cast its late-night lot with George Lopez, whose Lopez Tonight
had debuted the previous fall to promising ratings.
Though O’Brien was not on Koonin’s immediate radar, the TBS chief had no doubt his network was ready for a game-changing move. Under his guidance, TBS—best known even five years ago as home to the Atlanta Braves and, years before that, The Andy Griffith Show
—had become the number one cable network for those Coco-primed eighteen- to thirty-four-year-old viewers. Even so, it came as a pleasant surprise when someone not getting a Turner paycheck thought TBS might be up to the task as well. In early March, a reporter interviewed Koonin for Broadcasting & Cable
and kept asking about O’Brien. His answer then?
“We don’t have a need” for O’Brien, he said, “but I guess at the end of the day, we’ll never say never.”
“Never say never” has been something of a programming mantra for the network, ever since Ted Turner bought channel 17, the last-place UHF station that would become TBS, in 1970. From the start, Turner (who declined to be interviewed for this story) embraced his underdog status, and WTCG became a freewheeling breeding ground for off-the-wall (and often brilliant) ideas.
He mastered a maneuver that would become part of the station’s genes: counterprogramming. What weren’t the networks offering? Despite the married sailing enthusiast’s reputation for drunken debauchery on the America’s Cup circuit, Turner thought most broadcast shows were smutty, violent trash. So he went after reruns such as The Andy Griffith Show
and Leave It to Beaver
. The Vietnam-era news was distasteful to him, too, so he aired his Federal Communications Commission–required newscast in the wee hours and stuffed it with fluff delivered by Bill Tush (later a longtime CNN anchor) in unorthodox fashion—once, for instance, while in a gorilla suit, and once while holding a picture of Walter Cronkite over his face. When every other station ran religious shows on Sunday morning, channel 17 ran Academy Award Theatre
, a film block hosted by one “R.E. Turner III,” a dashing Rhett Butler lookalike who got the housewives talking. It was his first hit.
“Most of the people that were involved throughout [TBS’s] history had to have very entrepreneurial and creative DNA,” says Terry McGuirk, the Atlanta Braves chairman who joined Turner Broadcasting in 1972 and stayed for three decades. “This was not something that was purchased off the shelf or developed over a hundred years. Almost everything there was invented.”
That includes plenty of groundbreaking feats in television. Turner gambled his station’s future—and a chunk of his fortune—on nascent cable and satellite technology. On December 17, 1976, he flipped a switch, and WTCG’s signal beamed up to RCA’s Satcom 1 satellite and back down to more than 10 million square miles of North America into almost 700,000 homes. The runt of Atlanta television was now the Superstation—one of two national cable stations, along with HBO.
Many in those days worried for Turner’s sanity. But no one could question his uncanny ability to see the obvious before anyone else. That ingenuity led to more TV toys: CNN and Headline News, TNT and Cartoon Network. As those enterprises got off the ground, it was the Superstation whose revenue cushioned the younger networks. Perhaps Turner’s most prescient move was transforming TBS from a free station to a subscription-based cable network in the late nineties. Although it required negotiating new contracts with all of TBS’s cable operators, TBS’s profits after just the first year were $100 million, some of which was reinvested to snag the rights to reruns that are now TBS classics, such as Seinfeld
and Home Improvement
Before then, though, TBS had become a catchall for Turner’s whims, from documentaries on the Titanic to Braves games to Scooby-Doo
. This potpourri was fine back when cable was a four- or five-horse town, but now more than 150 channels littered the landscape, each in a narrower niche than the last. Turner mandated that new TBS president Bill Burke modernize the station—then fought most of the changes Burke suggested along the way. The man who had made it all possible was now holding up its progress.
“TBS was his first big idea, and if you wanted to move Andy Griffith
from 6:05 to 6:35, he had to know about it,” says Burke.
So Burke took baby steps, slowly steering TBS toward comedy. He convinced Turner to move the documentaries to CNN. He continued to replace old westerns and World War II movies with premieres of popular comedies such as Dumb and Dumber
. And he knew enough not to touch the Braves, high off the 1995 World Series win.
But Turner’s focus had not been solely on TBS for some time. His other networks, especially CNN, split his attention, as did his growing interest in causes outside of television—environmentalism, anti–nuclear proliferation, the bison, the Goodwill Games. He also married his third wife, Jane Fonda, and began to spend more time on his Montana ranch. He promised $1 billion to the United Nations. He wanted world peace.
But as long as the revenues were there, he didn’t really focus on branding TBS. For the network to thrive in the new millennium—and to once again go up against broadcast as a serious competitor—Ted Turner needed to leave.
At Coca-Cola headquarters, just across the Georgia Tech campus, Steve Koonin was making a name for himself marketing the world’s best-known brand. He dreamed up Coke’s Sky Field at Turner Field and once looked into projecting the Coca-Cola logo onto the moon. Turner Broadcasting execs were paying attention. Sure, he’d only ever worked in the beverage business. But he was innovative—and focused.
In early 2000, AOL announced its merger with Time Warner, which itself had merged with Turner Broadcasting in the mid-nineties. Ted Turner had voted yes to the AOL move, but without any assurance of a position at the new company. So he lost his say in TBS and the other Atlanta networks—and as much as $8 billion as his stock in the venture tumbled south.
Turner Broadcasting’s president, Steven Heyer, called on Koonin at that time to come brand TNT. Koonin brought with him another Coke branding whiz, Jennifer Dorian. Three years later, after making TNT synonymous with “We Know Drama,” Koonin and Dorian’s team was given the green light to tackle TBS. The network would finally be branded as the “Very Funny” landing pad Burke had envisioned years before.
Koonin’s team moved TBS’s popular syndicated sitcoms—Seinfeld
, Everybody Loves Raymond
, and Friends
—into prime time. They snagged the rights to other highly coveted reruns, such as Sex and the City
, and began to develop original series of their own.
It was Koonin’s pursuit of Tyler Perry, though, that provided the first big tip-off as to the type of ambitions he had—and the risks he was willing to take—for the network. In a move that melded Turner-style bravado with solid research, Koonin signed the fledgling filmmaker to develop a sitcom, House of Payne
, after seeing the success of Perry’s first movie, Diary of a Mad Black Woman
. After a pilot run in summer 2006, Perry inked an unprecedented 100-episode deal with TBS, reported to be worth $200 million. Payne
debuted the next year to record ratings and helped make Perry a household name—and gave TBS one of its first successful original sitcoms under the new regime.
“The day after we launched it, I got a call from a very big agent in Hollywood, with a very huge agency, saying, ‘This Tyler Perry fellow, does he have an agent?’” Koonin says with a laugh. “[Perry’s movies] had done hundreds of millions of dollars, but he wasn’t on the radar screen. Now Tyler obviously is the radar screen.” Critics have dealt abysmal reviews to both Payne
and Perry’s second sitcom, Meet the Browns
. But that hasn’t stopped Perry’s fanbase from tuning in. (“We’ve never given Tyler a note,” says Koonin, who generally avoids foisting suggestions on his shows. “He knows his audience better than we can ever know his audience.”)
The key to the network’s success is its strategy: TBS builds “vertical” prime-time blocks by bundling its syndicated standbys, such as Family Guy
, with complementary original series—including three new sitcoms this summer and fall. Ideally, these new shows would appeal to the viewers of the foundational show, and viewers would stick around for the entirety of that block. “One of the benefits that we have over broadcast is we can pick and choose the best of broadcast and then go build on top of it,” says Koonin. “Which I think just infuriates the broadcast guys.”
The one thing all the TBS shows now have in common? One of those signature TBS counterpunches. “We looked at what broadcast was and what they weren’t,” says Koonin. “What they weren’t is young and diverse.”
Koonin and crew call the approach “think twenty-nine.”
“[At that age], you’re dealing with marriage, you’re dealing with first house, first real job, there’s an incredible amount of stress,” explains Koonin. “We found through our research and our insight that the ‘think twenty-nine’ generation uses comedy as a relief.”
Comedy was also
very young and diverse. And wasn’t Team Coco as well? Toward the end of March, as Koonin read over the television industry news from the daily Turner clip service, he noticed an interesting item—there was a problem with the Fox-O’Brien talks; negotiations had stalled. You know, most of Leno’s and Letterman’s viewers are older, in their fifties! And Lopez’s average viewer is thirty-three. Maybe a partnership with Conan does make sense. How cool would that be?
With the excitement of a pretty girl finally realizing her ugly duckling days are over, Koonin decided to go after the most buzzed-about guy in school.
After all, he’d never said never
In the middle of the night in late March, Koonin wrote himself an e-mail on his BlackBerry. Like most everything he writes, it was all in caps, the easier for him to see. He was about to make one of two trips to L.A. to woo O’Brien and his late-night show to TBS.
After Koonin decided to go for O’Brien, it became a game of telephone. He called TBS’s head of programming, Michael Wright, who knew O’Brien’s manager, Gavin Polone. (Polone coproduces My Boys
, TBS’s longest-running original comedy.) Wright called Polone, who called O’Brien. By that time, Polone and O’Brien had fielded a number of offers; still, they were surprised—and interested. Koonin then called Polone to set up this first meeting. But what was the sell?
WE BUILT TBS ON COMEDY, YOUTH AND DIVERSITY
THE SUCCESS OF THESE SHOWS, THE NUMBERS OF YOUNG, DIVERSE VIEWERS
ONLY BROADCAST REACHES MORE [VIEWERS]
MORE YOUNG PEOPLE THAN COMEDY CENTRAL, MTV
WE THINK THIS IS THE LAST BROADCAST STRONGHOLD TO ATTACK
MOVING GEORGE TO TWELVE MAKES SENSE
THIS IS A TEN-YEAR PLAY
CAPTURE LATE-NIGHT WITH YOUTH AND DIVERSITY
WE WANT TO CELEBRATE YOU AS AN ARTIST AND BELIEVE IN YOUR BRAND
The initial Team Koonin–Team Conan tête-à-tête took place at the Beverly Hills headquarters of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, which represents O’Brien. There, Koonin relied on his talking points to make the formal pitch: Fox couldn’t assure O’Brien a nationwide presence for maybe years
because of deals some affiliates had with other shows. TBS could. Fox couldn’t give O’Brien ownership of his show, like David Letterman has. TBS could, on top of a reported $10 million salary and a four-day workweek (Friday will be a “best of” show). And at Fox, O’Brien would be one of many; at TBS, he would be the one around which the rest of the Very Funny network would revolve.
As O’Brien saw it, there was one major sticking point. What about George Lopez, whose Generation Y audience was a major facet of the pitch? O’Brien, comedic folk hero of young America, wasn’t just going to cop a squat on someone else’s time slot. He wasn’t Leno.
But Koonin had thought of that. The TBS team had already met with Lopez, convincing him that his young, male audience would stay up late for him, and that O’Brien’s show would make for a great lead-in. Lopez was sold.
Still, it all felt a little icky. A little déjà vu. That is, until Lopez himself called O’Brien on Wednesday, April 7, lauding the TBS team and the idea. An item on the New York Post
’s Page Six—which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, an old Ted Turner nemesis and owner of Fox—would soon report Lopez had been threatened with cancellation if he didn’t go along with the deal. TBS denies it, and later Lopez joked, “Come to work an hour later for the same pay? It’s the Latino dream come true!”
Lopez’s words, anyway, were enough for O’Brien. It took two days after the call to work out the details, a nanosecond in Hollywood terms. Koonin was like “a general leading troops into battle,” said Polone to online news site the Daily Beast
. Every tweaked point, every additional request from Team Conan, no matter the complexity, was met quickly by TBS, bureaucracy begone. Turner Broadcasting chairman and CEO Phil Kent had already green-lit Koonin to do what he needed to do to get the deal done.
Late that Friday afternoon, Steve Koonin received a photo on his BlackBerry: Conan O’Brien, boundless torso bent over a document lying on an equipment case, pen in hand, lawyer by his side.
The caption: We have a deal.
“Nobody saw it coming. Nobody saw it
,” whispers Koonin dramatically a few weeks later, a grin crinkling his eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. He’s sitting in his corner office, which looks down on Turner Broadcasting’s sprawling Techwood Drive campus. In June, hundreds of Turner employees would crowd the lawn in front of the columned manor that serves as the campus’s touchstone, cheering and waving signs. O’Brien, visiting his new network while in Atlanta for the last stop of his comedy tour, received a hero’s welcome.
It’s also there, on a computer sitting across from a glass-encased 1996 Olympic torch, that the TBS torchbearer checks his e-mail in awe. Koonin, it seems, has become something of a folk hero himself. In the weeks following the Conan coup, the UJA-Federation of New York, a Jewish nonprofit, honored him for his professional accomplishments and philanthropy. Mediaweek
ranked the network number one on its Cable Hot List of 2010, saying Koonin “outdid” himself by securing both O’Brien and a portion of the NCAA basketball tournament (for TNT). Even Koonin’s college-age son and daughter were impressed. (“It was one of the first things I’ve done my kids actually got excited about instead of embarrassed!”) But perhaps most meaningful were the thousands of e-mails that flooded his inbox here in Atlanta from grateful members of Team Coco. One sample: “Dear Mr. Koonin, thank you for making this happen. I’ve been a fan of Conan for years now, and it’s kind of lonely on late-night TV without him. He’s random and silly. Please keep him random and silly on TBS.”
Messing with O’Brien’s formula is one thing Koonin would never dream of doing. In fact, Koonin and his head of programming, Michael Wright, pride themselves on their hands-off “executives don’t make hit shows, talent does” mindset—and it’s winning over Hollywood.
“In cable, it’s almost like a Sandals resort: You can eat, and you can drink, and you can swim nude, you can lie out, they can catch you drunk at the bar . . . I mean, as long as you do your work, they allow you to create,” cracks Lopez at a post-upfront luncheon. “When I came out of the network thing [with George Lopez
, on ABC], I thought, I don’t want to go through that experience again, because it’s going to be awful. [TBS] is actually almost a reward for going through the network system.”
It’s a refrain that’s repeated by several TBS stars, from Ice Cube to My Boys
creator Betsy Thomas, who noted Koonin allowed her ratings-challenged but beloved show to continue when a broadcast network might have cut and run. “We have a silly saying,” explains Koonin. “If you spend the money on a Ferrari, you ought to save money for gas.” It helps that TBS gets a lot of mileage out of those pure cable profits. The network spent $447.3 million on programming last year. Turner Broadcasting is one of the biggest slices of Time Warner, and its 2009 revenue alone was $7.4 billion.
That’s nothing compared to, say, NBC Universal’s $15.4 billion in revenue. But when O’Brien premieres on TBS this November 8, he’ll reportedly get a show budget that equals his Tonight Show
gig. Koonin sees it as an investment. “The pop culture buzz is going to be great for the launch, but the key here is, we want to be business partners with Conan a decade from now, not for the week of the launch. If you sign off on a mutually creative vision, then you go let them do their thing, and our job is to support them.”
In June, that support manifested itself in a TBS-produced, tongue-in-cheek “for your consideration” ad campaign directed at Emmy voters—for work O’Brien did at NBC. In one, a large photo of a regal O’Brien accompanied this message: “Give this man one more thing to Tweet about.”
Signed, “From your friends at TBS.”
The upfront crowd dies down soon after O’Brien’s act. Steve Koonin takes the Hammerstein stage.
“As I was doing my morning yoga”—at fifty-three, Koonin is plump, with curly, graying hair; the crowd snickers at the thought of him exercising—“my instructor asked me, ‘Why does TBS and TNT hold its upfront during the traditional broadcast week, rather than with the rest of cable?’ The answer is very simple: REACH!” he yells, stretching his arms toward the crowd and grinning. Koonin—whom Wright once described as “Fezziwig,” a perpetually jolly Charles Dickens character—seems to already be having fun. “If you think of this as reach week and not broadcast week, we’ve more than earned our admission ticket.”
You see, the Turner basic cablers aren’t even supposed to be here. It’s the traditional broadcast upfront week—NBC, CBS, Fox, ABC, and the CW only, please. Cable’s usually ghettoized to some other less-buzzed-about time. But Koonin’s telling the truth; cable is catching up. An estimated 88 percent of U.S. households with a television get TBS; NBC reaches 99 percent. This is the third year that Turner networks have crashed the broadcast party, but it’s the first time Koonin has had an ace like O’Brien to catapult TBS legitimately into the Big Five’s territory—and he’s here to milk it for all it’s worth.
Like Ted Turner before him, Koonin didn’t brand TBS with the intention of competing with other cable networks. “We’re not going to hit our growth goals stealing business from the History Channel,” says Koonin later. “So we went after the broadcast networks. A, their business is in decline, and B, that’s where the money is.”
The viewers get it. Before sitting down at night to watch television, no one thinks, Hmm, I think I’ll watch a broadcast show. Or, A network show sounds good right about now.
Of course not. It doesn’t matter what channel a show is on, you watch what you watch because you like it.
That it doesn’t matter to you matters to Koonin. Because that’s the very point he has to drive home to every besuited ad buyer here today. It’s an assertion Ted Turner first made back in the seventies: We’re just as good, and worth as much, and reach just as many people as NBC and CBS and ABC! Believe in us! Buy us! Believe!
“We spent millions—millions
, plural—on that upfront because we believe making that impression on advertisers will have a return,” says Koonin. “The broadcast walls keep tumbling down, and we keep trying to find opportunities to make them crack.”
Future offerings from O’Brien’s production company, Conaco, may allay a concern of upfront veteran Don Seaman, vice president and director of communications analysis at New York ad agency MPG. Though TBS has “made conscious, or among the most conscious, branding efforts of any of the networks,” says Seaman, he sees one challenge ahead of Koonin on this front: to make TBS comedies must-see TV.
“In a way cable companies still have that burden of ‘It’s cable, I’ve probably already seen it, it’s good for background noise, it’s not appointment viewing,’” says Seaman. “Dramas have broken through on cable, but comedies really haven’t gotten to that point yet.”
Even so, Koonin’s broadcast counterparts are starting to feel the heat. It’s like this quote from CBS chief Leslie Moonves, which Koonin gleefully recounts to the upfront crowd: “The line between the cable channels and broadcast channels is blurring. Most people, certainly young people, don’t know the difference.”
But the people holding the purse strings still might. In June, the New York Post
reported that TBS was pitching broadcast-level rates for O’Brien’s show. It was, one buyer said, “insanity.” That didn’t stop at least two advertisers, who called Koonin at home to make sure there would be room for them on O’Brien’s program.
After his pitch, Koonin takes his seat in the ballroom behind two Los Angeles Times
reporters as Wright introduces the TBS and TNT offerings. On cue, TBS’s stars play up the network’s young, diverse demographics to the ad buyers, dragging in a beer keg and talking Twitter. Even Lopez gets in the game: “Fifty years ago, need I remind you, a redhead and a Latino made TV history. This fall, Coco and Loco will do it again!”
At the end, as Koonin returns to the stage surrounded by dozens of his networks’ Hollywood stars, it sinks in for Jennifer Dorian, one of his TBS and TNT cobranders: “Wow! These are the networks we inherited in the year 2000 that were built on the back of acquired shows. We have come so far.”
Beaming, he spreads his arms and thanks the crowd. Steve Koonin is loving this.