Exclusive Interview: Turner’s Michael Wright


PREMIUM: Michael Wright, as executive VP and head of programming for TNT, TBS and TCM, has overseen some of cable’s biggest hits, including The Closer. He speaks to World Screen about the strategy for more original scripted and unscripted shows at Turner’s entertainment networks.

WS: This is a great time for original cable programming. How did this “Golden Age” of cable TV come about?
WRIGHT: The top-tier cable networks have been growing their output of original programming. They’re doing it to maintain a competitive edge. You have to tip your hat to FX ten years ago with The Shield and USA with Monk. Those two shows were watershed moments. There had been cable series before those two but they were perceived largely to be inferior products. The Shield came along and achieved critical acclaim and Monk achieved commercial success. They became tentpoles for those networks [drawing ad sales and attention].

WS: When did you start thinking of producing original series?
WRIGHT: As early as 2003 we started talking about the need to expand into original series. Other cable networks did too. The number of original series on cable in 2010 compared with 2002 represents a huge growth, both scripted and unscripted. It’s part of a larger story that programming genres that were perceived to be the domain of the broadcast networks, have moved, one by one, to cable: news, sports, TV movies, series. I don’t think anyone is surprised when a program that was perceived to be a broadcast kind of show, like Conan, migrates to cable. Viewers, particularly younger viewers, no longer distinguish between broadcast and cable. They just look for shows they want to watch.
WS: How have you differentiated TNT and TBS from the rest of the cable channels?
WRIGHT: When the consumer has an infinite number of choices, helping them to know clearly what you are and what you offer is of the essence. It’s helpful not just to the consumer, but to the advertiser, too. They’re looking to place their ad dollars in an environment that is appropriate for their client. When you brand a network, it is both simple and broad. If you watch TNT, you get what that network is. TBS, too—it’s a broad portfolio of comedy programming. Because comedy is more subjective than drama, you can’t put one type of comedy on seven nights a week. We play to different comedy audiences throughout the week. But any night if you’re in the mood for comedy, you’re going to check out TBS. Drama, to me, is more universal in its audience appeal.
WS: As you increase the amount of original programming, will you be owning more of your shows?
WRIGHT: We license shows and we also own them. The Closer is licensed from our sister company Warner Bros. Television. Rizzoli & Isles is licensed from Warner Horizon Television and Leverage is licensed from Electric Entertainment. We own Men of a Certain Age, we co-own Falling Skies, the science-fiction drama that will premiere in the summer, with DreamWorks.
We took a cautious approach early on, but now we’ve got a pretty good track record. We’ve figured out what we like to do and how we like to do it, and because of that you’ll see us begin to own more of our own programming. Owning your own content could become more vital in coming years with the proliferation of distribution platforms. We love having Bones and The Big Bang Theory, but we worry a bit that they’ve already been viewed elsewhere. Nowadays there are a lot of other portals like Netflix and Hulu where these shows are available. Your ability to put content on your network that is exclusive, fresher, newer is a good thing. Owning your content means you can control where it is distributed.
WS: How did the John Wells drama, Southland, come to TNT?
WRIGHT: John Wells is a great television producer. Southland is a really smart, thoughtful drama. I was watching it as a potential acquisition. When I read NBC had canceled it, I thought that’s the kind of show that should be on cable. It aspires to be authentic and is a show where our ability to allow them a little more freedom with language and imagery might let them make the show they really wanted to make. I called John and they were able to move it over to us.

They had to reduce the budget a little bit. When we first started [producing our own shows] the difference in budgets between broadcast and cable was a bit wider. That gap has narrowed. If it’s going to narrow further I think it’s because the broadcast networks bring their budgets down. Some cable series could do with a little more cash to look better, but not ours, of course! The people who produce these series for us, whether it’s Michael Robin and James Duff on The Closer or Dean Devlin and John Rogers on Leverage or Janet Tamaro and Bill Haber on Rizzoli, they take our budgets and make a show that I will hold up to anything. I would argue that the viewer would not be able to look at one of these shows next to most broadcast shows and say, “This is the one that cost less to make.” They’ve weeded out the inefficiencies or the indulgences of some other productions and found a way to make great television for the money available.
A showrunner that is able to produce a great hour of television [for cable] and then goes back to play in the broadcast pond for a while is probably going to bring with him or her a skill set that is enormously valuable.
WS: Are you satisfied with the programming offering of your networks and what new shows are in the pipeline?
WRIGHT: The minute you allow yourself to be content, you’re probably in big trouble! I’m as happy as I’m allowed to get in this particular capacity, but I’m very content with what both networks have on the air and what they are planning. There are things coming to both networks that I think will make them better. We have The Big Bang Theory coming to TBS next year, which is a perfect show for TBS. We’ve picked up The Mentalist for TNT two years from now. For top-tier cable networks to remain competitive, we’re going to have to find a way to program more exclusive and/or original content. Not everything exclusive is original. The key is to not put stuff on, at least in prime time, that is available everywhere. I like acquisitions that are coming to the network and I like that we are busy figuring out how to create more of an exclusive original content base for both networks in prime time. I think you’ll see more unscripted make its way to both networks. And I love unscripted when it’s done well. You’ll see more of that on TNT and more unscripted comedies on TBS. I’m thrilled about Conan.
We have this amazing show called The Closer, which is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me as a programmer. Rizzoli & Isles came [later] and matched The Closer. It’s coming back in June for season two. It’s like The Closer and emblematic of what we do. It’s character based, populist themed. We love that everyman. All our shows have that everyman hero or heroine. Falling Skies premieres next summer. The premise is that aliens have invaded Earth and wiped out most of us, then most left. They left a garrison to mop up. Humans who survived banded together and are fighting back. It’s beautifully done. What I like about it most is that it reflects our focus on popular heroes, but does something different, too.
WS: Do you typically order 13 episodes of a series?
WRIGHT: We typically do 10 or 15. Most of our first-year shows are 10 episodes. If a show really performs well, we’ll move it to 15 episodes. The Closer, Rizzoli and Leverage are all 15-episode orders. We’re beginning to look at some 20- or 22-episode orders because, right now, we program most of our original stuff between June and Labor Day and in December and January. Our strategy is to [program our originals] when the broadcast networks are in repeats. As we’ve grown, we’re looking to program in some other places as well. We’re looking at longer orders for some of our hits so that we can take episodes beyond the summer and holiday season.
The most important thing is the talent that comes to this network. Television is about the programming and good programming comes from really talented people. The most successful thing we’ve been able to do at Turner over the years is to bring really talented writers, directors and actors to the network and put them in the position to do terrific work. That’s what I’m most happy about, the chance to work with people this gifted. I’m not aware of any writer, director or actor who would say no to something because it’s on TNT. That notion no longer applies.