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TBS Says Joke’s on Us

Bearing a new logo and brand, TBS Superstation will shed its general-entertainment roots, morphing into a “focused entertainment” service reliant on comedic reality fare and acquired sitcoms.

It’s mothballing the trademarked Superstation moniker on June 4 and adding the tagline “tbs very funny,” reflecting a commitment to acquiring marquee comedy sitcoms like Sex And The City, Seinfield and Everybody Loves Raymond, network executives said.

The target, as outlined to advertisers at an upfront presentation here last Thursday, is younger viewers.

TBS and Turner Network Television executive vice president and chief operating officer Steve Koonin said TBS’s median age has dropped since last year from 41 to 37. And in daytime, “the median age is 31-years-old; one of the youngest in all of television.”

The hope also is that comedy boosts ratings: TBS finished the first quarter of 2004 flat versus a year ago, with a 1.6 household mark.

Koonin said he won’t be competing directly with Comedy Central and its original series, specials and movies. “Comedy Central does a phenomenal job with a young male audience with Crank Yankers and its stand-up [shows],” Koonin said. “We’re going to be comedic storytellers.”

Comedy Central spokesman Tony Fox said there’s enough room for both.

“They have been using comedy to define their brand already. This just makes a more formal statement that that’s a programming direction they’re going in,” Fox said. “We have a different strategy in that we’re producing original comedies to reach our audience, and our more edgy content and comedy formats will appeal to a younger audience than the TBS programming will.”

Comedy Central’s first quarter was its most-watched ever. It enjoyed a 14% gain to a 0.8 household average in primetime and a 20% gain in viewers to 812,000 on average, according to Nielsen Media Research. It posted a 19% increase in total-day viewers to a record 488,000 on average.

TBS is borrowing an approach sister service TNT took three years ago, when it first claimed, “We know drama.”

In primetime, Friends will be stripped weeknights at 8 p.m., with reformatted versions of the randy Sex And The City, acquired from sister service Home Box Office, running three nights of the week.

Everybody Loves Raymond and the animated Family Guy will hold court on Monday nights, and original reality series will air Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The signature Dinner and A Movie block airs Fridays, with comedic movies dominating weekend prime.

As for originals, look for reality series, not scripted sitcoms. Koonin calls them a risky proposition. Over the past 14 years, by his count, only 56 of 456 scripted sitcoms launched on broadcast television survived more than four years, and only 46 have gone into syndication.

“With a nine out of 10 failure rate, for us to get into the scripted sitcom business with the economics that it has isn’t a viable business decision for us,” Koonin said.

Instead, TBS will invest in original reality programming similar to such broadcast shows as American Idol and Survivor.

Outback Jack, a Bruce Nash (For Love or Money)-produced series in which several single women vie for the affections of a rugged Australian bachelor; and Gilligan’s Island, a takeoff of the 60’s comedy series that has already been renewed for a second season, will complement the slate of acquired sitcoms.

“We will invest broadcast licensing fees on reality programming equal to and exceeding many of the broadcast networks, and create broadcast parity to level the playing field,” Koonin said. “It’s more comedic reality, and we want to be one of the leaders in this category.”

Katz Television Media Group vice president and director of programming Bill Carroll said it often helps to better define a brand message.

“Advertisers are always looking for the broadest audience that they can get, but also achieving the specific audience goals,” Carroll said. “If you’re able to provide younger female demographics but still a reasonable overall base, then you’re always in better shape.”

He also said TBS could thrive, in the short run, with marquee off-network sitcoms and acquired comedic movies.

“Do you ultimately have to have a signature program? Probably,” Carroll said. “But you can you do extremely well and establish a brand initially without signature programming.”

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.