Branded: TNT’s Journey from “The Best Movie Studio on Television” to “We Know Drama”

TNTWeKnowDramaBanner

By Cory Barker

One of the more under-analyzed pieces of televisual text is ‘the brand’–the various promotional texts, slogans, logos, images, commercials, and shows that help shape a channel’s or network’s identity. With these pieces, I’ll try cover some different brand identities–and various alterations in identity–throughout history. First up is a look at TNT. (Note: This is based on a project I’m currently working on in a more academic context; it’s being re-purposed here with heavy edits and jargon removed. All the sources from Broadcasting and Cable and Variety were found on academic databases, so no direct links are available.)

In June 2001, TNT issued a press release celebrating a “new look, a new logo, and a new tagline: ‘TNT: We Know Drama’.” The Time Warner-owned cable channel’s news signaled a new branding strategy, one that aimed to help the older TNT stand out amid increasing opposition from more niche competition. TNT debuted commercials featuring recognizable actors such as Whoopi Goldberg, Dennis Hopper, and Martin Short and athletes like Shaquille O’Neal, Richard Petty, and Jeff Gordon providing individual answers to an important question: “What is Drama?” Older commercials are difficult to find, but here is a shoddy version of the commercial with the various actors:

And the one with the NASCAR drivers:

In the spot with NASCAR drivers, drama is identified as “Life at 190-miles an hour,” “being a NASCAR crew chief,” “27 guys with one goal,” “14 second pit stops,” “being original,” “living up to expectations,” and perhaps most importantly, “Drama is NASCAR on TNT.” In the other commercial, actors refer to drama as “[Something] with its high points and low points,” “Life and the characters in it,” “love,” “war,” “crime,” “fear,” and as Whoopi Goldberg puts it, “With drama, you get everything.”

Goldberg’s response is fascinating because it reflects how broadly TNT attempted to define an already-broad generic category. Based on these early commercials, drama is simultaneously specific events (war), fundamental human feelings (fear, love), story structure (something with high points and low points), a metaphor (life at 190-miles an hour), and somehow, an occupation (being a NASCAR crew chief). In 2001, drama was whatever TNT decided sounded interesting in a sound bite. The hazy definition of drama stemmed from TNT’s messy schedule reflective of the large cable channels of the time: reruns, old movies, some sports, and no real hook. On the same day that the “We Know Drama” campaign began, Broadcasting & Cable detailed how TNT was in the midst of a five-year ratings decline and stuck with a “general entertainment” label, while advertisers pursued more hip, niche competitors. Even for a channel with lots of diverse content, “drama” felt like a particularly unspecific brand identity. But for TNT, the turn to generic labels was just another part of an extended process where the channel chased original television programming, and a specific brand identity. 

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TNT hit cable in October 1988 with a primetime airing of Gone with the Wind and a special retrospective documentary celebrating the classic film. Although Ted Turner noted in interviews leading up to the channel’s premiere that he expected TNT to “eventually challenge and perhaps topple” the still-very-powerful broadcast networks, the schedule full of older films and reruns of television series like Fraggle Rock resulted in an opening that Variety called “more fizzle than explosion.” For its first few years in existence, TNT mostly aired films and television series that Ted Turner had acquired; in 1990, Turner purchased partial rights to the NFL’s Sunday Night Football.

Near the middle of the 1990s, trade presses hinted at a move away from feature purchases and toward original programming development. Broadcasting & Cable detailed how cable channels like TNT were trying to replace network reruns with original programming throughout 1993 and 1994. Although TNT produced made-for-television films and mini-series throughout the 1990s, executive Brad Siegel told B&C in 1995 that the channel had recommitted itself to “much bigger projects and bringing movie stars to television.” Along with that re-commitment came the channel’s first clear brand identity: “The Best Movie Studio on Television.” 

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“Best Movie Studio on Television” worked for TNT through the end of the 1990s, as it regularly topped the ratings from 1996-1999. However, I would suggest that much of the channel’s success at the time stemmed from the fast-rising popularity of professional wrestling, programming that entirely excluded from TNT’s brand image at the time. As the cable landscape continued to expand, both original programming and branding grew even more important. Inspired by HBO’s accomplishments and attention with 1998’s Sex and the City and 1999’s The Sopranos, cable’s emphasis on original programming moved to ongoing scripted series.

Although TNT previously tried and failed with some ongoing series throughout the 1990s—among them The Lazarus Man (1996), the foreign-produced The New Adventures of Robin Hood (1997-98), and the final season of Babylon 5 (1998-99), and its spinoff Crusade (1999)—executives announced a full commitment to original drama development in 1999. Executive vice president of original programming Julie Weitz said ongoing series would be “a special boutique business,” president Brad Siegel underscored the importance of originals, and brand identity:  “I think the market is in a state of flux right now. It’s a good time to get in, and nothing can really help define a network as a signature series can.” This statement suggests that even amid a period of relative success, TNT knew it needed a brand image, and original programming, to compete. Unfortunately, that would not come with the channel’s first development cycle. Both the Wall Street-centric Bull and cable news-focused Breaking News failed, and TNT absorbed high costs after choosing not to air produced episodes. The failures of Bull and Breaking News, combined with declining popularity of wrestling, left TNT reeling. Meanwhile, growth for more generically-focused competitors began to steal away audiences. In 2001, TNT turned to genre with a new brand image, “We Know Drama,” yet, this transition was not without problems as well.

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In the press release announcing the “We Know Drama,” TNT general manager Steve Koonin, said “TNT’s promise to engage the hearts and minds of our viewers with dramatic programming that offers a powerful combination of compelling stories and interesting characters, mixed with excitement, action, suspense, romance, and humor.” According to TNT’s internal research, these viewers preferred “dramatic series, movies, and sports to other programming genres” and sought out television that made them “think and feel.” Although Koonin claimed that the new brand image came from detailed audience research, this statement reflects the disconnected, all-encompassing nature of TNT’s initial conceptualization of drama. Drama is already particularly broad and vague, and yet, Koonin established that TNT’s brand of drama means a number of different things and recalled disparate types of programming. This opening press release set a tone for TNT’s use of drama throughout the first half of the 2000s.

Working with a broad genre, Koonin’s statement referenced other broad generic categories (action, suspense, romance) and both emotional and cognitive responses. Koonin and TNT committed to nothing, imply numerous generic affiliations, and embrace as many viewers as possible. Again, this is reflective of TNT’s status as a general-appealing cable channel; niche audiences were not really part of its process. Koonin referenced a particular target audience, but people who like television to “make them think and feel” is not an especially targeted group. TNT followed many of its peers, evoking genre in its brand image, but a broader target audience led to the use of a vague genre (with additional vague references).

Recall the opening commercials I presented, and this 2003 one featuring Spike Lee introducing TNT’s coverage of the NBA playoffs, and think again how TNT does not commit to one definition of drama, nor to one conceptualization of genre. Instead, stars are the most dominant part of these spots. Most of the actors hired to describe drama were tellingly more famous for their film work. The decision was clearly made to legitimize TNT’s brand image and use of drama, even if many of the stars had not or did not appear in TNT programming. TNT also used various emotional appeals (note the references to “fear,” “thrill,” “love,” “hyped up,” and “extraordinary”) in hopes of broadly defining an already broad generic category.

These commercials align with cable’s move towards brand images, but TNT’s diverse slate of content and larger audience means numerous possible emotional appeals. This is reflective of TNT’s struggles with a strategy better suited to smaller, more niche channels and audiences. This is perhaps why TNT chose such a broad generic category to begin with, and the channel’s use of drama, at least initially, matched the category’s all-encompassing nature. The “What is Drama?” commercials leaned on film promotional strategies and attempted to garner the largest audience, resulting in a very general definition of drama, and TNT’s brand. Discourse in the trade presses agreed, as a 2001 Broadcasting & Cable essay called TNT’s use of drama “a bit of a stretch.”

Print ads for TNT content in the early “We Know Drama” era offered another complicated representation of the channel’s brand identity and use of genre. The updated logo and slogan are present in the one-sheets, but are not prominently featured. The “We Know Drama” logo is unobtrusively tucked into the bottom corners, almost as if not to disrupt the generic evocations happening in the dominant portions of the image. Conversely, we might also say that the placement of TNT’s logo and slogan here is a stamp of approval for these particular series, films, and mini-series, and for their generic images. The inclusion of the “We Know Drama” logo and slogan suggests that whatever TNT airs is drama, no matter what kind of primary generic associations a project might have. 

With the logo and slogan pushed into the bottom corners, the rest of the space in the one-sheets recalls vibrant generic associations—none of which are specifically drama. The supernatural police series Witchblade began before TNT introduced “We Know Drama,” yet the only difference in promotion of the special event film in 2000 and the ongoing series in 2001 is the inclusion of the updated TNT logo and slogan; the visual style of the posters remains the same. Witchblade’s promotional art offers visual elements that signify two primary generic images: the police procedural (a NYPD cop car, the text noting, “You’ve never met a New York Cop like her”) and fantasy (the special medieval weaponry).

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There is a similar formula with specific generic associations in the special telefilms or mini-series such as Salem’s Lot, The Librarian: Quest for the Spear, and The Grid that TNT aired a few years into the “We Know Drama” era. The one-sheet for Salem’s Lot recalls links to horror with its eerie home on a hill, old cemetery, a dark color palette, and the “In a small town, evil spreads quickly” tagline. Visible on The Grid’s one-sheet are FBI logos and jackets, guns, and an ominous group (who are clearly meant to represent terrorists) raising automatic weapons into the air. The “Targeting those who target our freedom” tagline and big yellow crosshair imagery further reinforce this. The one-sheet for The Librarian evokes Indiana Jones with its gold and brown hues, secret treasure tomb imagery, and Noah Wyle’s dirty khaki shirt and pants. The icons for police procedural, fantasy, horror, and spy and espionage are all present in these one-sheet posters, clearly defining each of these projects by a particular genre that is not necessarily drama. These one-sheets do not visually offer multi-generic associations, but TNT certainly hoped that audiences would connect the more dominant generic image with its evocations of drama. Yet again, it is as if TNT is telling audiences that all of these recognizable genres are drama. (And again, these posters rely on their respective stars and their star power.)

The commercials and posters offer broad affective appeals and star-genre formulations and present a multitude of definitions of drama. They underscore both proprietary and sharable elements and simultaneously embrace specific generic associations, yet fail to define the larger category of drama. This is a byproduct of TNT’s desire to use popularized industry strategies but still hold onto its broad audience targeting. A few series would help change the channel’s direction and brand.

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While the “We Know Drama” brand image gave TNT a solid promotional push in the first half of the aughts, the channel’s failure to develop a successful ongoing series grew to be a problem for its definition of drama, and for its overall success. Competitors like USA Network and FX had developed popular series like Monk, The Dead Zone, and The Shield. It was no longer surprising to see original hour-long drama series on basic cable; it was expected. In 2003, TNT reshuffled its executive team again with yet another goal to develop ongoing series, which had been, according to executive Grant Ancier, “fairly dormant.” Much of the attention paid to TNT at the time focused on its airings of Law & Order. In October 2003, Broadcasting & Cable noted that Law & Order reruns were “routinely attracting more than 3 million viewers per episode.” Steve Koonin told B & C that TNT offered more than Law & Order, but also acknowledged that “the best lead-in for Law & Order is Law & Order.” He also claimed that the channel intended to “build a schedule around a brand.” Despite Koonin’s insistence to the contrary, TNT’s brand was all about Law & Order. With that series in mind, TNT’s version of drama began to shift away from a disparate number of associations and towards procedural stories about crime-solvers. Of course, this was still a relatively broad definition of drama, but it at least pushed TNT to offer something specific to its audience. The channel produced versions of the “What is Drama?” commercials solely for Law & Order, and clearly used the series in the development of its next original series, The Closer.

The Closer was an immediate success when it debuted in the June 2005. The premiere was the highest-rated showing for a basic cable scripted series to-date and within two weeks, The Closer was renewed for a second season. Piggybacking off Law & Order, the success of The Closer helped TNT establish its original series development, and also transformed its brand and generic images. (As a 2008 Broadcasting & Cable article noted, audiences would not have found The Closer without the “habit-forming” viewing that Law & Order created.) The Closer quickly became TNT’s signature series, and its popularity with audiences helped TNT develop additional ongoing series with particular textual (self-contained procedural stories, skilled lead character supported by group of team members) and thematic (justice, work life/home life balance) elements in mind.

the closer s1The first season’s one-sheet only barely highlights visual iconography of the police procedural. The tagline references Brenda’s interrogation expertise (“They’ll bring you in. She’ll make you talk.”), as does the dark room with cold metal table. However, there are no guns or badges visible, and each of the series’ male cast members is simply posing in nondescript dark suits that fade directly into the poster’s background. Sedgwick on the other hand, is pushed to the foreground, dressed in a lighter brown, and lit from overhead, all of which places her as the most prominent part of the image. Her name is above the series’ title on the poster as well. Furthermore, in this one-sheet, TNT’s logo and slogan stand out much more. The color change from yellow to red helps the logo pop against the black and gray. As a result, this poster for The Closer is TNT’s first that feels like it does not rely on outside generic associations.

The success of The Closer shifted trade discourse about TNT and its use of drama. After previous skepticism, the trade press began to praise TNT’s brand image and regularly associated The Closer with the channel’s brand of drama. A 2005 Broadcasting & Cable article noted that TNT “has established itself as a home for drama (The Closer, Law & Order),” while a 2006 Variety report about Sedgwick’s Emmy chances detailed how The Closer was “unlike most procedural dramas” thanks to the “idiosyncratic” and “complex” Brenda. Another 2006 piece in Variety described how The Closer and its “record-setting” ratings were “open[ing] door[s]” for other cable channels not to be scared by the big broadcast networks. Even in an article about TNT’s online streaming offerings, Variety could not resist the connection to drama, using the headline “Drama Streams from TNT.” This discourse kept TNT’s achievements in the spotlight, and consistently associated those achievements with the channel’s brand, stars, and drama. The industry-wide importance of generically-marked brands meant that TNT could not afford to offer such a polyvalent brand image that evoked everything and nothing; coverage in trade presses assisted in stabilizing and solidifying the brand and its connection to genre.

This celebratory discourse in the trade press helped TNT avoid too much criticism in the first few years after The Closer as it still struggled to develop another original series hit with 2005’s Wanted and 2006’s Saved. Luckily, 2007’s Saving Grace, a series about another older blonde female crime-solver, thrived in its post-Closer timeslot. Saving Grace was compared to The Closer in reviews (Brian Lowry’s Variety review noted that despite the series’ increased focus on the lead character’s destructive personal life, Grace was “ostensibly another female-lead cop franchise a la ‘The Closer’”) and was unsurprisingly promoted like The Closer with a star-dominated, genre-light poster. Meanwhile, the TNT logo and slogan moved even further out of the corner in the Grace one-sheet, signaling its growing value in the discourse, and to viewers. 

TNT had two hits on its hands, and from there, it seemed much easier to branch out and develop series about something other than sarcastic white blonde detectives. Saving the Bar and Leverage came in 2008, and from there, TNT was off and running. By 2008, TNT could celebrate that its use of drama had both expanded and solidified. Coverage of TNT in trades stressed the channel’s successes and its generic associations. A 2008 Broadcasting & Cable article about cable’s use of syndicated reruns and their impact on the brand image celebrated TNT’s brand: “TNT informs its viewers that ‘We Know Drama’ and then backs up that claim with quality off-net and original shows.” B & C also highlighted TNT’s successful brand image in 2010 coverage, detailing TNT’s “hold” on drama. TNT’s accomplishments with drama were also regularly profiled in Variety during this time. A mid-2008 article made reference to “the common thread” of “personal drama” in TNT’s original series and brand. An early 2009 piece detailing TNT’s accomplishments mentioned the channel’s “ambitious drama slates,” while another described TNT’s “dramatic summer,” and yet another alluded to “Drama-filled TNT.” From even this brief survey of trade presses, we can see that TNT’s use of drama stuck within the industry. With the relationship between brand and genre entrenched, TNT was able to further purchase and develop programming that reaffirmed its so-called hold on drama.

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TNT’s use of a broad generic category exacerbated its problems, before eventually solving them. In the first half of the “We Know Drama” era, TNT had very little idea how to merge its wide array of programming with newfound brand and generic images, resulting in scattered promotional discourses that seemed like the channel simply tacked “We Know Drama” onto anything it could. However, once TNT found success with Law & Order and eventually The Closer, both its programming development and its promotional materials began to appear more coherent. Although those connections were real, particularly the focus on procedural stories about teams of cops, lawyers, and doctors, TNT did not dramatically change its promotional discourses. The channel still emphasized stars and it still regularly produced promotional discourses that offered either multiple or no generic associations (two things scholars have identified within film studio promotional discourses).

Mostly what changed was that TNT gained some real successes, so it was able to emphasize its own stars (not those borrowed from film) and focus more on its drama label as either one of the multiple generic associations, or as the only generic association. Reinforcement and circulation from the trade presses only further strengthened TNT’s achievements, and the connections between to particular types of programming, to specific stars, and to drama. In 2011, TNT was still tacking its logo and slogan onto a number of disparate (though less disparate than the channel’s 2001 content) programs; that logo and slogan simply held more discursive weight. Consequently, TNT displays that while brands and genres are often discursive categories created by multiple (and sometimes competing) discourses, the text matters as well—especially when a studio or channel tries to redefine its discourses on the fly, without the content present to reinforce those discourses. On television in particular, audience loyalties rely first with individual series or the stars of those series and attracting audiences is the easiest way to give a brand and/or a genre discursive weight (with trade presses, critics, etc.). Ultimately then, for television networks and channels, success is predicated on discourses and texts working in concert to establish a substantive brand identity.

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