Channel surfer Featured

9:49am EDT April 22, 2005
Mark Lazarus confesses to being a voracious channel surfer. He watches news and sports, sometimes several channels at a time. All of which drives his wife crazy, to the point that she can't sit in the same room with him.

While Lazarus may sound like the stereotypical man with a remote control, he has one excuse very few others do -- he can call it research.

As president of Turner Entertainment and Turner Animation, a part of Turner Broadcasting and a division of media conglomerate TimeWarner, Lazarus rules some of the most popular networks on television -- TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network, Turner Classic Movies and Turner South.

"We're in a very fast-changing media and consumer behavior environment," he says. "I spend a lot of my time thinking about what's next. We have very smart people executing the now. (My job is) making sure that I give the right guidance and resources to our people to do our best work, and exercise good judgment when it comes to business and programming decisions."

Making the right decision continues to get more difficult for Lazarus, former head of Turner Sports. In the past few years, the average home's access to television channels has leapt from between 40 and 50 to more than 100, and even more in some satellite formats. However, any individual consumer still has only 12 to 14 channels that fall within what Lazarus calls the "consideration set," the channels he or she turns to first.

"What we're trying to do is put our brands -- TBS, TNT, Cartoon -- into everyone's consideration set," he says.

To do that, Lazarus makes his decisions after considering four factors, each a leg of a very important chair.

"A chair has four legs," he says. "One of them is distribution. There is very little difference between fully distributed broadcast and fully distributed cable."

The second leg is ratings.

"Ratings are changing a lot," Lazarus says. "There is no longer much difference between broadcast ratings and cable ratings. On any given night, some cable shows beat broadcast shows. Broadcast shows still tend to the highest ratings, but the ratings gap is shrinking every year."

The third leg is comprised of program producers, suppliers, people who create shows, television studios and movie studios.

"Programming is the same," says Lazarus. "It started years ago with sports programming. The NBA, for years, was on TNT and NBC. Michael Jordan played with two sneakers on NBC and two sneakers on TNT. It wasn't different programming."

Over the past few years, cable networks have stepped up their creative, developing highly successful original program, which has narrowed the programming gap of the past. Shows like "The Shield" on F/X and "Monk" on USA are proving to advertisers that there is no difference between cable and broadcast stations.

"The fourth leg is marketers and advertisers," Lazarus says. "That is the slowest in evolving. The program supplier side -- the producers -- have been slow, but they're now gaining speed. They understand if they create a hit show for cable, they will make money off of it, which is ultimately what they are interested in.

"Advertisers are still slow in coming, but they're starting to gain some steam. That's where we're using the One Television World message very loudly right now by saying to advertisers, 'You can buy shows on TBS and TNT, substitute that for shows you would have bought on NBC or CBS, and reach the same amount of people the same amount of times, and do it more efficiently."

One world
One Television World isn't Lazarus' touchy-feely version of a 1960s television communal utopia.

It is his vision in which the rest of the industry recognizes the long-blurred landscape between broadcast and cable channels.

In it, networks will compete for viewers and advertising revenue on a level playing field. Lazarus says he wants the marketing and production communities to view television the way the rest of the world does -- as one medium, not a composition of many disparate ones. The challenge will be to overcome the traditional television model in which broadcast stations are able to charge more for advertising than their cable cousins.

"The consumer views television as television," Lazarus says. "If it's a show they like, they don't care what channel it's on. The marketing community [and] the production community still, in a lot of ways, separate broadcast [TV] and cable [TV]. We don't think the consumer thinks that way, so we don't think the industry should."

Broadcast stations simply don't have as many eyeballs as they once did, so they can't absorb as much money, he says. Cable continues to grow. Top-tier cable stations such as Turner's TBS, TNT and Cartoon Network are among the fastest growing.

"It's a function of math," Lazarus says. "As audiences become more fractured and people are doing different things to absorb media, marketers and advertising agencies have challenged themselves to look deeper and try to be smarter about how they place their media. Over the last few years, more money has moved from broadcast to cable than in the previous decade. The message is starting to be heard, and now it's started to be acted upon."

Consumers may not care where the shows they view are coming from, but it is Lazarus' job to ensure those viewers make Turner's collection of channels part of their regular fare.

"We're in an industry of options," Lazarus says. "We have to be aware of the prevailing sentiment of the consumer and what will draw them [in]. It's a continual challenge."

Brand leader
TBS was once labeled the Superstation. Today, that distinction is meaningful only to a scant few insiders at Turner Broadcasting. So Lazarus set out to rebrand the station, one of the industry's early stars.

"TBS has a lot of good, quality programming," he says. "TBS Very Funny as a brand launched last June. It has an opportunity to become a place people go in any form of media for their comedy outlet."

Lazarus isn't content with restricting comedy to Turner stations; his plan includes taking the brand to other media, as well.

"Comedy translates very well in short bites to a wireless phone," he says. "Comedy can relate very well to one standup bit on a video-on-demand platform. Comedy can translate very well through your computer via broadband in short doses. I don't see someone sitting on their wireless phone watching an episode of Law & Order."

As a "brand" guy, Lazarus clearly gets it.

"Today, we largely exist as network brands," he says. "We will evolve into branded environments. And those branded environments will not just be portable to television, wireless, broadband and video-on-demand. We're spending time developing each brand, and they each have different nuances. TNT will have other opportunities. Maybe that's in digital theaters. That's where I think we'll be in the next three to five years."

Innovative thinking, the kind that led Turner Broadcasting founder Ted Turner to make the company an entertainment powerhouse, is the same approach Lazarus follows.

"If you think about what Turner has done historically, that plays on our heritage," he says. "One of the ways we do that is we quite often wrestle with complex problems. We don't necessarily just sit and wait for the people in that division to say, 'Here is how we should fix it.' We create small groups of people who come from other parts of the company to help think through complex issues."

It's all part of communicating a uniform message for the company and convincing employees to buy in to the overall corporate vision.

"We have assembled a very smart, team-oriented group of people who have similar aspirations," he says. "We all believe that Turner Broadcasting, founded on a leg of entrepreneurship, even though we've grown to nearly 9,000 people, can maintain that spirit and the camaraderie that comes around having a company of people that really believes in what they are doing."

Answering the critics
Despite his successes, Lazarus hasn't always been the go-to guy at Turner. Early on, critics argued that his sales background would compromise the networks' editorial integrity. But that, Lazarus says, was a needless concern.

Whisperings of those concerns were heard shortly after chairman and CEO Philip Kent decided to realign the company more vertically into three areas -- entertainment, animation and news. Kent put control of all aspects of those divisions under a single individual -- Lazarus -- who at the time was president of Turner Sports.

Suddenly, he found himself head of Turner Entertainment, which included not only sports but also TNT, TBS, Turner Classic Movies, Turner South and the company's privately branded Web sites, NASCAR.com and PGA.com. In addition to programming responsibilities, Lazarus was also tasked with overseeing all aspects of the company's marketing, sales and advertising.

"Every media company, at some point, the editorial side and the business side meet," he says, "whether it's a chairman, a CEO or a president. Every company's got its own structure. Ours just happens to be at my level before it gets to the chairman/CEO. That concern was raised because I came from the sales industry."

So far, Lazarus has answered the critics.

"There is a line between editorial and sales," he says. "And while the industry has blurred the line, I don't believe we, as a company, or I as an individual, have taken any liberties that would put our editorial integrity in question."

At the same time, Lazarus was also named temporary head of the animation division while a search was conducted for a full-time head.

"As we started to work with studios to create programming [and] we started working with advertising and marketers, there was a fair amount of overlap between how the two (divisions) could be managed while still maintaining their identity," Lazarus says. "It made sense to keep them under one business unit head."

So in 2004, Lazarus removed the temporary from his title and absorbed the animation division. In his first year in charge of it, the Cartoon Network posted its best year ever.

Part of that success came as a result of a restructuring in the way Nielsen interprets the ratings, which allowed Lazarus to pull Adult Swim, Cartoon Network's late night mature programming, out of the full Cartoon Network ratings profile.

"With that we do two things," Lazarus says. "We almost instantaneously create the No. 1 rated network for adults aged 18-34 with Adult Swim. And, we also raise the average day for kids ratings for Cartoon Network by some 15 percent because we're pulling all those older ratings out. The real benefit to us will be giving a spotlight to Adult Swim as a unique marketing opportunity for advertisers to reach young adults, which is the hardest group of people to reach."

And for Lazarus, it's all about reaching viewers and getting them to change the channel to visit a Turner Broadcast station. Then he just has to figure out how to get those channel surfers to put down the remote.

And when he does, someone should tell his wife.

How to reach: Turner Broadcasting System Inc., (404) 827-1700 or www.turner.com