Courting Viewers

Can Steve Koonin save another cable network?

Steve Koonin gets told all the time that he looks like the guy who played Newman on Seinfeld. As the president of Turner Entertainment Networks, though, he’s more rising star than bit player. He joined Turner in 2000 after 14 years at Coca-Cola. He branded TNT as the “drama” network and then took over TBS and defined it as the “very funny” channel. Prime-time ratings at TNT among 25- to 54-year-olds are up 14% since his arrival, and at TBS, up 7% in prime time with 18- to 34-year-olds. His next challenge may be the most daunting one yet.


Mission: Get more people to tune in to Court TV in a given week than A&E, ESPN, or Lifetime.

Secret weapon: The key to his success, Koonin says, has been to think like a consumer-products marketer. TV execs tend to let today’s hit show drive tomorrow’s direction. His radical idea: create a clear identity for each network.

The problem: With Court TV, Koonin has to balance two conflicting successes. Prime-time dramas such as Forensic Files (a real-life CSI) are working, and cable operators insist that he also keep its daytime live-courtroom programming, because it’s unique. Koonin’s goal has been to come up with a brand that includes the legal proceedings but isn’t defined by them.

Key insight: Research revealed that the viewers of Court TV’s prime-time shows include two main groups: mystery solvers, typically women ages 25 to 54 who enjoy piecing together a story to solve a problem, and what Koonin calls “real engagers,” mostly young men who like true stories that take them places they wouldn’t otherwise go. Unsurprisingly, Koonin decided to target real engagers since advertisers like young men.

First move: Change the name. Koonin feels that Court TV evokes images of criminals. “Nothing positive happens in a courtroom,” he says. The channel will relaunch as truTV in January, targeting viewers most entertained by watching true stories about others (i.e., the YouTube crowd).

Next steps: Before truTV debuts, Koonin will send researchers into the homes of target viewers to gather information, much as Intuit famously does with its software. Koonin’s boss, Mark Lazarus, president of Turner Entertainment Group, acknowledges that Koonin “comes at our business very differently from the way many people do who grew up in it.” That has served Koonin well so far, but truTV will be his true test.