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

One aspect of televised content that often receives insufficient analysis is ‘the brand’ – encompassing promotional materials, slogans, logos, imagery, commercials, and programs that collectively contribute to shaping the identity of a channel or network.

In the following segments, I will explore various brand identities and the transformations they have undergone throughout history.

Our first examination focuses on TNT. (Please note that this is adapted from a project I am currently engaged in within an academic context, and it has been modified here with substantial revisions and the removal of specialized terminology. All references are derived from academic databases such as Broadcasting and Cable and Variety, and direct links are unavailable.)

In June of 2001, TNT made headlines by unveiling a press release that marked the introduction of a fresh look, a revamped logo, and a new tagline: “TNT: We Know Drama.”

This announcement by the Time Warner-owned cable channel marked the inception of a novel branding strategy.

The primary objective was to distinguish the long-established TNT amidst rising competition from more specialized networks.

As part of this rebranding initiative, TNT launched a series of commercials featuring well-known personalities such as Whoopi Goldberg, Dennis Hopper, and Martin Short, alongside prominent athletes like Shaquille O’Neal, Richard Petty, and Jeff Gordon. These notable figures were posed with a significant question: “What is Drama?” and each provided their unique perspectives.

Goldberg’s response is intriguing because it illustrates the extensive scope of TNT’s attempt to define an already expansive and versatile genre.

Based on these early commercials, drama is depicted as encompassing specific events (such as war), fundamental human emotions (like fear and love), the structure of a narrative (characterized by high and low points), a metaphor (akin to life at 190 miles an hour), and, somewhat surprisingly, even an occupation (as seen in being a NASCAR crew chief).

In the year 2001, drama essentially became whatever TNT believed sounded captivating within a concise statement.

The somewhat ambiguous delineation of drama can be traced back to TNT’s somewhat disordered schedule, which mirrored the programming landscape of many large cable channels of that era.

This schedule comprised reruns, dated movies, a smattering of sports, and a distinct lack of a defining appeal. On the day the “We Know Drama” campaign was launched, Broadcasting & Cable reported on TNT’s five-year decline in ratings and its struggle to break free from the “general entertainment” classification, while advertisers gravitated towards trendier, niche competitors.

Even for a channel offering a diverse range of content, “drama” appeared to be a rather indistinct brand identity.

Nevertheless, for TNT, the embrace of these generic labels marked another step in their ongoing journey towards original television programming and a more distinct brand identity.


TNT made its debut on cable in October 1988, featuring a primetime broadcast of Gone with the Wind and a special retrospective documentary commemorating this iconic film.

In the run-up to the channel’s launch, Ted Turner had expressed his expectation that TNT would, over time, pose a challenge and possibly even rival the still highly influential broadcast networks.

However, the initial lineup, which consisted largely of older films and reruns of TV shows like Fraggle Rock, resulted in an opening that Variety described as “more subdued than explosive.”

During its initial years, TNT primarily showcased films and television series that Ted Turner had acquired.

It wasn’t until 1990 that Turner acquired partial rights to the NFL’s Sunday Night Football, marking a significant development in the channel’s programming lineup.

In the mid-1990s, industry publications began to suggest a shift away from acquiring feature films and towards the development of original programming.

Broadcasting & Cable, in particular, reported on how cable channels like TNT were actively seeking to replace network reruns with their own original content during the years 1993 and 1994.

Although TNT had been producing made-for-television films and mini-series throughout the 1990s, executive Brad Siegel revealed in 1995 that the channel was renewing its commitment to “much larger-scale projects” and bringing prominent movie stars into the realm of television.

This strategic shift also marked the emergence of TNT’s first distinct brand identity, as it boldly proclaimed itself as “The Best Movie Studio on Television.”

The slogan “Best Movie Studio on Television” proved to be a winning formula for TNT throughout the late 1990s, with the channel consistently dominating the ratings between 1996 and 1999.

However, it’s worth noting that a substantial portion of TNT’s success during this period can be attributed to the surging popularity of professional wrestling, a genre that was entirely distinct from TNT’s established brand image at that time.

As the cable television landscape continued to expand, the significance of both original programming and branding grew even more pronounced.

HBO’s achievements and acclaim with shows like Sex and the City in 1998 and The Sopranos in 1999 served as a source of inspiration, prompting cable networks to shift their focus towards the development of ongoing scripted series.

Although TNT had made previous attempts at ongoing series in the 1990s, including shows like The Lazarus Man (1996), the foreign-produced The New Adventures of Robin Hood (1997-98), and the final season of Babylon 5 (1998-99), along with its spinoff Crusade (1999), these efforts had not met with success.

Nevertheless, in 1999, the channel’s executives announced their unwavering commitment to developing original drama series.

Julie Weitz, the Executive Vice President of Original Programming, characterized ongoing series as a “special boutique business,” while President Brad Siegel emphasized the critical importance of original content and brand identity, stating, “I believe the market is currently in a state of change.

It’s an opportune time to enter, and nothing can define a network as effectively as a signature series.”

This statement suggests that even during a period of relative success, TNT recognized the need to establish a distinct brand image and invest in original programming to remain competitive.

Unfortunately, the channel’s initial foray into original series development encountered significant setbacks. Both Bull, centered around Wall Street, and Breaking News, focused on cable news, faltered, leading to substantial financial losses as TNT chose not to air produced episodes.

The disappointments of Bull and Breaking News, coupled with the waning popularity of wrestling, left TNT in a challenging position. Concurrently, rival networks with more generic content offerings were gaining ground with audiences.

In 2001, TNT opted to rebrand itself with a new image centered on the genre of drama, encapsulated by the slogan “We Know Drama.” However, this transition was not without its share of challenges.


In the press release introducing the “We Know Drama” branding, TNT’s General Manager, Steve Koonin, stated, “TNT’s commitment is to engage our viewers’ hearts and minds through dramatic programming that offers a potent blend of compelling narratives and intriguing characters, infused with excitement, action, suspense, romance, and humor.”

According to TNT’s internal research, their audience showed a distinct preference for “dramatic series, movies, and sports” over other program genres. These viewers sought television that both challenged their intellect and stirred their emotions.

While Koonin asserted that the new brand image stemmed from in-depth audience research, this statement underscored the comprehensive and all-encompassing nature of TNT’s initial interpretation of drama.

The term “drama” itself is inherently broad and open to interpretation, yet Koonin’s description indicated that TNT’s brand of drama encompassed a diverse array of elements and evoked memories of various types of programming.

This inaugural press release set the tone for how TNT approached the concept of drama during the first half of the 2000s.

In his statement, Koonin acknowledged the broad nature of the drama genre by referencing other equally expansive categories such as action, suspense, and romance. He also alluded to both emotional and intellectual responses.

Essentially, Koonin and TNT opted for a strategy that committed to nothing specific, implied connections to numerous generic categories, and aimed to embrace as wide an audience as possible.

This approach aligns with TNT’s identity as a cable channel with broad appeal, where catering to niche audiences was not a primary focus.

Koonin identified a particular target audience, but individuals who seek television that “makes them think and feel” do not constitute a particularly narrow or specific group.

TNT followed a trend observed in many of its industry counterparts by incorporating genre elements into its brand image.

However, the pursuit of a broader target audience necessitated the use of a somewhat ambiguous genre descriptor, along with other vague references.

Reflecting on the opening commercials I previously mentioned, including the 2003 spot featuring Spike Lee introducing TNT’s coverage of the NBA playoffs, it becomes evident that TNT does not commit to a single definition of drama or a singular genre concept.

Instead, the spotlight falls prominently on celebrities. Notably, most of the actors enlisted to convey the essence of drama were widely recognized for their work in the film industry.

This choice was a clear strategic move to establish the legitimacy of TNT’s brand image and its association with drama, even if many of these stars had not previously appeared in TNT programming.

Furthermore, TNT employed a range of emotional appeals, as evident in references to feelings like “fear,” “thrill,” “love,” being “hyped up,” and experiencing the “extraordinary.”

These emotional references were intended to provide a broad and inclusive definition of an already expansive genre category.

In essence, TNT’s approach aimed to resonate with a wide-ranging audience by capitalizing on the fame of its celebrity spokespersons and tapping into various emotional facets of drama.

These commercials align with the broader trend in the cable industry, which was moving toward establishing distinctive brand images.

However, TNT’s extensive range of content and its larger and more diverse audience presented a unique challenge, as it offered numerous possible emotional appeals.

This predicament reflects TNT’s struggle with a strategy that might have been better suited to smaller, more specialized channels with narrower audiences.

This is likely why TNT initially opted for such a wide-ranging genre category, and their utilization of drama, at least in the beginning, aligned with the genre’s inherently all-encompassing nature.

The “What is Drama?” commercials adopted promotional tactics commonly employed in the film industry, aiming to attract the largest possible audience. This approach resulted in a notably broad definition of both drama and TNT’s brand.

Industry discourse in trade publications seemed to agree with this assessment.

In a 2001 essay published in Broadcasting & Cable, TNT’s use of drama was described as “a bit of a stretch,” highlighting the challenges posed by the channel’s attempt to appeal to a broad and diverse viewership.

In the early “We Know Drama” era, print advertisements for TNT content presented a nuanced representation of the channel’s brand identity and its approach to genre.

While the updated logo and slogan were incorporated into these promotional materials, they did not take center stage.

Instead, the “We Know Drama” logo was discreetly placed in the bottom corners, almost as if it were intentionally designed not to disrupt the broader thematic elements depicted prominently in the image.

On the other hand, one could also interpret the positioning of TNT’s logo and slogan in these advertisements as a kind of endorsement for the specific series, films, and mini-series being promoted, as well as for the generic associations they conveyed.

The inclusion of the “We Know Drama” logo and slogan seemed to convey the message that whatever TNT aired, it could be classified as drama, regardless of the primary genre affiliations of a particular project.

This approach underscored TNT’s broad and encompassing interpretation of the drama genre, emphasizing its versatility and ability to encompass a wide range of content.

In these one-sheets, where the logo and slogan are relegated to the bottom corners, the majority of the space is dedicated to evoking vivid genre associations, none of which are explicitly tied to the concept of drama.

A notable example is the supernatural police series Witchblade, which had commenced before TNT introduced the “We Know Drama” branding. Interestingly, the promotional materials for the special event film in 2000 and the ongoing series in 2001 primarily differ in the inclusion of the updated TNT logo and slogan.

The visual style and content of the posters remained consistent.

The promotional art for Witchblade incorporates visual elements that signify two primary genre images: firstly, the police procedural aspect is represented by the presence of an NYPD cop car and text emphasizing, “You’ve never met a New York Cop like her.”

Secondly, there’s a clear nod to the fantasy genre with the inclusion of medieval weaponry.

These elements highlight the broader genre associations that were more prominent than the drama theme in these advertisements, underscoring the intricate blend of genres that TNT often employed in its promotional materials.

A similar pattern of specific genre associations can be observed in the one-sheets for special telefilms or mini-series like Salem’s Lot, The Librarian: Quest for the Spear, and The Grid, which TNT aired a few years into the “We Know Drama” era. The promotional materials for these productions employed distinctive genre cues to convey their content:

The one-sheet for Salem’s Lot draws viewers into the realm of horror with its depiction of an eerie home on a hill, an aged cemetery, a dark color palette, and the chilling tagline, “In a small town, evil spreads quickly.”

In the case of The Grid, the poster prominently features FBI logos and agents in jackets, firearms, and a menacing group meant to symbolize terrorists raising automatic weapons. The tagline, “Targeting those who target our freedom,” and the prominent yellow crosshair imagery further emphasize the espionage and thriller genre.

For The Librarian, the one-sheet evokes the adventure genre, reminiscent of Indiana Jones, through its use of gold and brown tones, imagery of secret treasure tombs, and Noah Wyle’s attire in a dirty khaki shirt and pants.

Each of these one-sheet posters distinctly associates these projects with particular genres, such as horror, espionage, adventure, and thriller, which are not necessarily aligned with the drama category.

While these posters didn’t visually present a mix of genres, TNT’s strategy appeared to rely on the hope that audiences would connect the dominant genre imagery with the overarching theme of drama.

It’s as if TNT was conveying the message that all these recognizable genres could be encompassed within the broader definition of drama. Once again, the star power of the respective actors played a significant role in these promotional efforts.

The commercials and posters utilize broad emotional appeals and star-genre combinations, offering a myriad of interpretations of drama.

They emphasize both exclusive and relatable aspects while also embracing distinct genre affiliations. However, they fall short of establishing a comprehensive definition of the overarching category of drama.

This outcome can be attributed to TNT’s ambition to incorporate well-established industry tactics while maintaining its commitment to a wide-reaching audience.

It would take the introduction of a few key series to reshape the channel’s trajectory and redefine its brand.


While the “We Know Drama” brand image initially provided TNT with a robust promotional platform in the early 2000s, the channel’s inability to establish a successful ongoing series posed a significant challenge for its drama identity and overall success.

Competing networks like USA Network and FX had already achieved notable success with series such as Monk, The Dead Zone, and The Shield.

The presence of original hour-long drama series on basic cable was no longer a novelty; it had become an expectation among viewers.

In 2003, TNT restructured its executive team once again, with a renewed focus on developing ongoing series. According to executive Grant Ancier, this aspect had been “fairly dormant” for the channel.

During this period, much of the attention surrounding TNT was centered on its broadcasts of Law & Order. In October 2003, Broadcasting & Cable highlighted how reruns of Law & Order consistently drew in more than 3 million viewers per episode.

While Steve Koonin, speaking to B&C, emphasized that TNT offered more than just Law & Order, he also acknowledged that the series was, without a doubt, its own best lead-in.

Under the influence of “Law & Order,” TNT’s interpretation of drama began to evolve from a diverse array of associations to a more focused emphasis on procedural narratives involving crime solvers.

This shift represented a relatively broad yet specific definition of drama and compelled TNT to provide something more distinct to its audience.

The channel even tailored versions of the “What is Drama?” commercials exclusively for Law & Order and unmistakably utilized the series as a springboard for the development of its next original series, The Closer.

The Closer enjoyed immediate success upon its debut in June 2005. The premiere episode achieved the highest ratings for a scripted series on basic cable up to that point. In a mere two weeks, the show was granted a renewal for a second season.

Building on the momentum created by Law & Order, the triumph of The Closer played a pivotal role in TNT’s foray into original series development and triggered a transformation of its brand and genre identities.

A 2008 article in Broadcasting & Cable highlighted that The Closer wouldn’t have found its audience without the “habit-forming” viewership that Law & Order had cultivated.

"The Closer" became a significant success, achieving high ratings and becoming TNT's signature series.
“The Closer” became a significant success, achieving high ratings and becoming TNT’s signature series.

In a short span, The Closer became the signature series for TNT, and its popularity among viewers paved the way for the network to develop additional ongoing series.

These new series were crafted with specific textual elements in mind, including self-contained procedural narratives and a skilled lead character supported by a team of individuals.

Additionally, they incorporated thematic elements related to justice and the balance between work life and home life, reflecting the success and appeal of The Closer.

In the one-sheet for the first season of The Closer, the visual iconography of the police procedural is only subtly hinted at. The tagline alludes to Brenda’s interrogation prowess with the statement, “They’ll bring you in. She’ll make you talk.”

This theme is echoed in the depiction of a dimly lit room with a cold metal table. However, unlike typical police procedural imagery, there are no guns or badges in sight.

The male cast members are merely pictured in nondescript dark suits that blend into the background of the poster.

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In contrast, Kyra Sedgwick takes center stage in the image. She is positioned in the foreground, dressed in a lighter shade of brown, and illuminated from overhead, making her the most prominent figure in the composition.

Her name is also positioned above the series’ title on the poster. Additionally, in this particular one-sheet, TNT’s logo and slogan are more prominently displayed.

The change in color from yellow to red helps the logo stand out against the black and gray background.

As a result, this poster for “The Closer” represents TNT’s first attempt that doesn’t heavily rely on external genre associations, signaling a shift in the network’s promotional approach.

The success of “The Closer” marked a significant turning point in the discourse surrounding TNT and its approach to drama. After initial skepticism, trade publications began to commend TNT’s brand image, frequently linking The Closer with the channel’s unique brand of drama.

For instance, a 2005 article in Broadcasting & Cable observed that TNT had “established itself as a home for drama, featuring shows like The Closer and Law & Order.

Similarly, a 2006 Variety report discussing Kyra Sedgwick’s Emmy prospects emphasized how The Closer stood out from typical procedural dramas due to the “idiosyncratic” and “complex” character of Brenda.

Another 2006 Variety piece highlighted how The Closer, with its “record-setting” ratings, was breaking down barriers for other cable channels, demonstrating that they need not be intimidated by the major broadcast networks.

Even in articles about TNT’s online streaming offerings, the connection to drama remained irresistible. Variety used the headline “Drama Streams from TNT” to underscore this link.

This ongoing discourse placed TNT’s accomplishments in the spotlight and consistently associated these achievements with the channel’s brand, its star power, and its commitment to drama.

The industry-wide recognition of branded genres meant that TNT could not afford to maintain a polyvalent brand image that evoked everything and nothing.

Coverage in trade publications played a pivotal role in stabilizing and cementing the channel’s brand identity, as well as its strong connection to the drama genre.

The positive discourse in trade publications provided TNT with a buffer against excessive criticism during the initial years following the success of The Closer.

During this time, TNT grappled with the challenge of replicating another original series hit, with shows like Wanted in 2005 and Saved in 2006 falling short of expectations. Fortunately, in 2007, Saving Grace emerged as a successful series, particularly in its post-Closer timeslot.

Saving Grace drew comparisons to The Closer in reviews, with Brian Lowry’s Variety review noting that, despite the series’ increased emphasis on the lead character’s tumultuous personal life, it was essentially another female-led cop franchise in the vein of The Closer.

Unsurprisingly, the promotional strategy for Saving Grace mirrored that of The Closer, featuring star-dominated posters that leaned lightly on genre associations.

Additionally, in the one-sheet for Saving Grace, TNT’s logo and slogan moved even further from the corner, signifying their growing importance in both industry discourse and to viewers.

This shift underscored the increasing value and recognition of TNT’s branding elements.

TNT found itself with two successful series, and from that point onward, it became considerably easier to diversify and create shows that extended beyond the realm of witty, white, blonde detectives.

In 2008, Saving the Bar and Leverage were introduced, marking the beginning of TNT’s expansion into new territories. By 2008, TNT could proudly assert that its utilization of drama had both broadened and solidified.

Trade publications consistently highlighted the channel’s achievements and its genre associations.

A 2008 article in Broadcasting & Cable, discussing cable’s use of syndicated reruns and their impact on brand image, celebrated TNT’s branding by noting, “TNT informs its viewers that ‘We Know Drama’ and then substantiates that claim with high-quality off-net and original shows.”

In 2010, Broadcasting & Cable once again acknowledged TNT’s successful brand image, highlighting the network’s “dominance” in the drama genre.

Variety also frequently profiled TNT’s accomplishments during this period. A mid-2008 article referenced the “common thread” of “personal drama” in TNT’s original series and its brand.

An early 2009 piece detailing TNT’s achievements mentioned the channel’s “ambitious drama slates.” Another article described TNT’s “dramatic summer,” while yet another alluded to “Drama-filled TNT.”

Even in this concise examination of trade publications, it’s evident that TNT’s use of drama had firmly established itself within the industry.

With the interconnection between brand and genre firmly entrenched, TNT was in a position to continue acquiring and developing programming that reinforced its claim to be a powerhouse in the world of drama.


TNT’s adoption of a broad generic category initially created challenges that it eventually managed to overcome.

During the first half of the “We Know Drama” era, TNT struggled to effectively align its diverse range of programming with its newly established brand and genre identity.

This resulted in scattered promotional messages that often seemed as if the channel had simply appended “We Know Drama” to any content it could find.

However, once TNT achieved success with shows like Law & Order and, later, The Closer, both its programming development and promotional materials began to exhibit greater coherence.

While the connections were indeed real, particularly in terms of the focus on procedural narratives featuring teams of law enforcement professionals, lawyers, and doctors, TNT did not significantly alter its promotional messaging.

The network continued to emphasize the importance of its star talent, and it regularly produced promotional materials that either offered multiple genre associations or none at all—two elements that scholars have identified in film studio promotional discourses.

The significant change that occurred was TNT’s acquisition of genuine successes, enabling the network to highlight its own stars rather than relying on those borrowed from the film industry.

This shift allowed TNT to place more emphasis on its drama label, either as one of several genre associations or as the primary genre association.

The reinforcement and amplification of these aspects by trade publications further solidified TNT’s achievements and the connections between specific types of programming, individual stars, and the drama genre.

Even in 2011, TNT was still incorporating its logo and slogan into a variety of programs, albeit ones that were less disparate than the channel’s content in 2001. However, the logo and slogan now carried more discursive weight.

This illustrates that while brands and genres often emerge as discursive categories shaped by multiple, and sometimes conflicting, discourses, the content itself also plays a crucial role—especially when a studio or channel attempts to redefine its discourses on the fly, without the content readily available to substantiate those discourses.

In the realm of television, audience loyalty primarily centers around individual series or the stars of those series.

Attracting viewers remains the most effective means of conferring discursive weight to a brand and/or a genre, especially when supported by trade publications, critics, and other relevant discourse.

Ultimately, for television networks and channels, success hinges on the synergy between discourses and texts, working together to establish a substantial and enduring brand identity.

Reesav Niraula
Reesav Niraula
Reesav is a entertainment freak who enjoys spending his time immersed in the arts and entertainment world. In his free time, he is delved into entertainment as well, i.e. playing his guitar and singing songs.

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