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Chasing Men of a Certain Age, but Not Conan

As TNT prepares to unveil its first unaired originals of Southland on March 2, Turner Entertainment Networks President Steve Koonin says he considers the NBC castoff “one of the tougher projects we’ve ever done.” And speaking of properties jettisoned by NBC, Koonin also says that Turner has not reached out to Conan O’Brien, but allows that he would “never say never” to the host, despite the success of George Lopez on TBS in late night.

In a wide-ranging chat with B&C Executive Editor Melissa Grego, Koonin speaks about all of this, plus why cable is going to steal a bigger piece of the upfront pie. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

How are you feeling about Southland as unaired originals begin this week?
This is one of the tougher projects we’ve ever done, because there’s really not an experience in a playbook. It was difficult to wrap our arms around it. It’s not an original that we’ve been seeding and launching, and it’s also not an acquired show like a Mentalist or Law & Order that has a track record. So, I’m cautiously optimistic, but with a big capital C in “cautious” because I just don’t know; I don’t have a feel for it. I hope it works.

Men of a Certain Age just wrapped its first season this week. You’ve ordered a second. Did it perform as you hoped?
This show surpassed every expectation I had. Our criteria are critical success, for which we got a check-plus; adding value to sales clients and cable affiliates, that’s a check-plus; and potential in ratings, [another] check-plus. It couldn’t have performed better than it did.

What are your thoughts on Conan O’Brien?
I think Conan O’Brien is a terrific talent. If Conan chooses to put his brand with the right brand, he can do extremely well. It depends what his needs are and his agenda is. We have entered late night for the first time with George Lopez, and we’re extremely pleased with the show. One of our key strategies on TBS is youth and diversity, and George is helping us with youth and diversity. So, we don’t have a need [for Conan], but I guess at the end of the day we’ll never say never.

What would you do with O’Brien if Turner got him?
I can only answer the question if we had a plan to grab Conan, but truthfully our networks don’t at this point in time. To just look at a person like Conan and be able to tell you what we’d do, how we’d do, how it would work, we haven’t done the due diligence and I’m not sure [we would] until we hear from his people that that’s something they’re interested in. The point is we’ve not pursued him; if [Conan’s camp is] interested in having a conversation with us, we’re happy to. But we have George Lopez in its infancy, one of the most ambitious projects cable has ever undertaken, a 200-night-a-year talk show. We’re not sitting here talking about adding our second one.

Is there anything out there that is getting ratings and heat that you’re not doing?
I think lifestyle programming has really caught on. I applaud the Food Network. What used to be a business of cooking shows and stand-and-stir has turned into terrific entertainment. And I am a big fan of it. I think lifestyle nets like Food Network and Travel Channel have really done a great job. They are true to their brand. I am fascinated by and respect brand-centric networks that stay consistent rather than try to find the next hot thing.

What are the emphases, or the business stories, you aim to get across to marketers about your cable network brands in 2010?
One of the big headlines is TruTV shaking up the 18-49 [demo]. It has crashed the top 10 and has stayed in the top 10, and has had tremendous growth since it’s been rebranded.

You said recently that three years ago, cable got some 30% of the upfront take to broadcast’s 70%, but that has changed. What will the split be this upfront season?
I’m not being evasive, but I don’t predict percentages because that’s for the ad sales people. The point that I was making is that the idea of cable as a viable substitution for broadcast has absolutely been ceded. And it’s not only ceded, it is accepted.

But better than the 30-70 that you referred to?
Exactly. This isn’t revolution, this is evolution. And this is fact-based evolution. And the facts are showing the audience is shifting to cable, the money is following and it will happen over time. It’s not a one-year process. We’re in our third year of doing an upfront during broadcast week. Now it’s an accepted fact, and it’s absolutely part of the thinking today. When we introduced the concept, it was a bit alien.