The entertainment landscape is facing all kinds of uncertainty. Netflix lost a ton of subscribers, its future no longer as rosy as it once seemed. Movie theaters (especially arthouse chains) are still trying to recover after the pandemic. Meanwhile, over at Warner Bros., the hallowed film studio is going through some internal changes now that its parent company, WarnerMedia, has merged with Discovery to become Warner Bros. Discovery. Mergers mean redundancies, though, and some folks are going to be losing their jobs. Also, it means cost-cutting is under way.
That brings us to this week’s news that TNT and TBS, which are under the Warner umbrella, will no longer be developing new series. In its article breaking the story, Variety reported that “TNT has only two scripted shows left on its roster. Those are Animal Kingdom, which will end after its sixth season airing in June, and Snowpiercer.” What wasn’t mentioned was that this is the end of an era. Put another way, it’s time to say goodbye to TNT’s “We Know Drama” slogan.
It might seem like it’s been forever since TNT first branded itself as the go-to basic-cable destination for serious dramas, but the change actually happened in June 2001. This was during an epochal moment when HBO was starting to establish itself as a top-flight brand, producing acclaimed series like The Sopranos that offered more nudity and adult language than you could see on the regular networks. TNT — which was short for Turner Network Television in honor of founder Ted Turner, who launched the channel in 1988 — offered something that wasn’t quite as risqué. When TNT unveiled “We Know Drama,” general manager Steve Koonin said that the new slogan was part of “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.”
To help get viewers excited about this new emphasis on serious fare, TNT put together a suite of ads that sold the idea that not only did the channel “get” drama, everybody involved in those shows “got” it, too. Whether it was recruiting cast members of ER, which aired on TNT in reruns, or Timothy Hutton, star of the TNT original series Leverage, actors proudly declared TNT as the place for smart dramas. The campaign extended to the sports that TNT broadcast — especially the NBA. Which explains why world-class Knicks fans Spike Lee, in the early 2000s, did a spot where he talked about all the drama inherent in playoff basketball.
As much as TNT tried to position itself as the home of drama, the spots were never taken especially seriously. As the traditional networks started ceding creative ground to cable, HBO programs like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Deadwood were considered the height of prestige television in the 2000s, soon followed by AMC’s Mad Men and Showtime’s Dexter. By comparison, TNT never had a show that was nominated for the Outstanding Drama Emmy, although programs like The Closer and Rizzoli & Isles were popular — and that’s not even counting reruns of other networks’ shows, like Fox’s Bones, which played on TNT so often that it almost seemed like it was a TNT original.
TNT knew drama, but only a very specific, more milquetoast version of drama. And everybody was aware of that fact. In his 2010 stand-up special Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening, Aziz Ansari did a joke about his nerdy 14-year-old cousin Harris, whose “favorite TV shows are hour-long dramas on USA and TNT. You know how you see billboards for shows like Burn Notice, and you’re like, ‘Who the heck watches Burn Notice?’ Harris watches Burn Notice! He loves it! Harris told me his senior quote is going to be ‘TNT Knows Drama.’”
Like USA’s Burn Notice, TNT’s dramas often felt like second-tier prestige series — very slightly risk-taking, edgier than the stuff on traditional networks, but lacking the creative daring (or explicit content) of an HBO. TNT was a comfortable middle ground, especially if you didn’t want to pay extra for premium cable. The Sopranos and Breaking Bad were cool. TNT wasn’t cool.
When TBS, also part of the WarnerMedia family, landed Conan O’Brien in 2010 after the Tonight Show debacle, it helped create a clear separation in people’s minds between that channel (once called Turner Broadcasting System) and TNT. TBS was for comedy, TNT was for drama. (TBS’ slogan was “Very Funny.”) But eventually — and without me realizing it — TNT actually changed its marketing in 2014, pivoting to “TNT Drama. Boom.” What did that mean? This is how TNT’s press release explained it:
“This new tagline is designed to represent that moment in all great dramas when the story takes an unexpected turn. It’s the ‘aha’ moment, the surprise, the climax. The moment when the drama goes ‘boom’ can be a trail of blood with no body to be found, a mistress discovered, the realization that the world’s survival is in the hands of one man, or the last-second buzzer-beater in a crucial game.”
TNT was still producing new dramas — including Animal Kingdom, a steamy update of the Oscar-nominated Australian thriller and Michelle Dockery’s Good Behavior, which featured, according to Decider, “one of most shocking sex scenes in basic cable TV history” — that tried pushing the envelope. But the channel’s old slogan — and its strained attempt to seem provocative — continued to haunt it. Even though “We Know Drama” had been banished eight years ago, you can still see people online invoking it in mocking terms, most recently in regards to the suspense over whether Elon Musk was going to buy Twitter.
It’s easy to goof on “We Know Drama,” but today it serves as an unlikely time capsule for an early-21st-century period in which basic and premium cable were liberating scripted series from the straitjacket limitations of the major networks, telling stories that were too bold for the likes of CBS, whose audience skewed much older. But not everybody could do Homeland or Game of Thrones or Boardwalk Empire, which is where TNT came in. TNT gave us thoughtful, modest character pieces like Men of a Certain Age or action series such as The Last Ship. The network looks like it spent a good amount of money on its lavish TV adaptation of Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer. But these weren’t zeitgeist-defining programs. At a time before everybody started cord-cutting, they were merely something to watch between basketball games and reruns of Marvel movies.
In the film business, there’s a lot of concern that the mid-level movie may be going away — those modestly-budgeted adult dramas that aren’t blockbusters — and the end of TNT’s original programming is an illustration that middle-of-the-road regular-cable series may be dead, too. Now, you’ll have to dig for that sort of thing somewhere buried amidst all the options on Netflix — or found amongst those weird on-demand options that Spectrum offers its subscribers. (One day, I will meet someone who’s seen The Bite.) But in the meantime, we’ll always have the memory of “We Know Drama.”
Yes, TNT, at one point you did. Maybe it wasn’t the most scintillating drama, but it was fun while it lasted.