PREMIUM: Kevin Reilly, the president of TBS and TNT and chief creative officer of Turner Entertainment, shares his vision for both networks with World Screen Newsflash.
WS: What choices can you make when programming a cable network compared to a broadcast network?
REILLY: In cable you have more control over your destiny. First of all, you own 24 hours of your air, which gives you flexibility in terms of how you move your programming around. It can lead to stunts like marathons. [In fact] we are playing the entire first season of Angie Tribeca over a 25-hour period. Cable allows you to be a little more nimble with scheduling changes, including moving your ad inventory around. Additionally, cable is not beholden to an affiliate network, and the charter of cable is not bound by FCC regulations. So the standards are looser, which has ultimately led to more creative freedom.
In broadcast, you are always aiming at the widest part of the audience, whereas cable, by definition, has been an alternative to broadcast and aimed at a narrower target. In today’s culture, narrow does not necessarily mean smaller; you can aim at a specific spot such as zombies and wind up with the number one drama on television.
WS: Narrow tends to mean very passionate fans.
REILLY: Yes, and in this day and age, breaking through the culture really means the more specific you are, the more someone’s favorite show you are, the better chance you have at breaking out.
WS: Earlier last year you said you wanted to shift the focus of some of TNT’s drama. How has that gone so far, and how will you change TNT’s lineup without alienating the core audience?
REILLY: It’s gone really well. We’ve been very public about the commitment we’re making to original programming. [We’re one of the networks with] the most original hours on the air, and we are committed to increasing that. I’ve been doing this for quite some time and thankfully have a pretty good track record. I’ve brought in Sarah Aubrey to run programming at TNT, and Sarah is highly respected and liked in the community. All of that collectively has brought tremendous creative talent in the door.
If you look across the landscape right now, I don’t want to use the cliché of the golden age of television, but drama on television (however you define “television”) has truly been at an all-time high in terms of cinematic quality, complexity, storytelling and depth of character. The bar is set very high, and we are simply moving the bar up. There is also a form of television that is a little bit more traditional, traditionally franchised, closed-ended. That doesn’t mean it’s inferior television; it’s just a little bit more familiar in construct. Our programming has been very good and very successful. We are now just opening up that construct and saying more is possible: breaking rules, having more unpredictable, conceptual ideas and characters, trying to go against convention not conform to it, and becoming more cinematic. It’s led to a lot of success.
WS: What are some of the upcoming new shows on TNT?
REILLY: The first big announcement we made was The Alienist, which director Cary Fukunaga (who won an Emmy for True Detective), the Oscar–nominated writer Hossein Amini, and Academy Award–winning producer Eric Roth are executive producing, along with Steve Golin. This drama is based on the best seller by Caleb Carr, which [others have] tried to make into a feature film for years. That project could have gone anywhere, and we proactively took it off the market, and this group of really fine artists agreed to do it with us.
We have two pilots that will be going to series. Good Behavior was created by Chad Hodge and Blake Crouch and is based on Blake’s best-selling [Letty Dobesh] novels. Michelle Dockery plays a really troubled woman who is dynamic, complex and somehow drawn to a litany of crazy situations, and is trying to get her life back on track.
The other series is Animal Kingdom, brought to me by my old friend John Wells. This is a nice little piece that comes full circle in my career as John Wells did ER, one of the first big broadcast hits I was associated with when I was VP of drama at NBC. Animal Kingdom is based on an Australian feature film about a crime family, led by a matriarch, that got a pretty strong cult following.
We’ve made a significant commitment to building a franchise under the heading Tales from the Crypt. Tales comic books have been around for some 60 years, and in the early iterations of original programming at HBO, Tales ran for about seven years. M. Night Shyamalan will executive produce and will probably direct multiple series as part of the franchise.
WS: What is your vision for TBS?
REILLY: Whereas TNT has been in the original-
programming business with quite a bit of success for several years, TBS has made efforts on that front but never really established an identity. [For 2015] TBS finished again as the number one basic-cable entertainment network, as it has for the last four years, but that’s been predominantly on the strength of our acquired programs. We are now going to build more brand affinity as the place for original programming with comedic and live events. If you look across the landscape, there is a historically low level of comedy on the broadcast networks. Cable has never really programmed comedy as a destination, [with the exception of] Comedy Central, and frankly that network has struggled in recent years and obviously lost their number one guy in Jon Stewart. So we see a real opportunity to leverage the 24 hours of a cable network and the sports assets we have to really go into young comedy. We ordered six scripted series and a couple of unscripted series [since I joined the company]. Ours will be young comedy with a really bold sensibility. We have a wide range of things we are doing and terrific talent coming through the door.
The first [people to come on board] were my old friends Steve and Nancy Carell and Rashida Jones. Steve and Nancy created this crazy show Angie Tribeca. Rashida Jones, Jere Burns and Deon Cole star with terrific guest stars, including James Franco and Bill Murray. We’ve already ordered a second season. Angie Tribeca premieres on January 17, and I just love being in the hands of these comedy experts, who will take us out of the gate, signaling a new comedy network.
We also have a show with Samantha Bee. She was one of the singular voices on The Daily Show as a correspondent and will do a once-a-week, half-hour topical satire show. Her husband, Jason Jones, created and will be starring in a show called The Detour.
Wrecked is a strong ensemble comedy. It’s almost like a comedic Lost, about a group of people marooned on an island. They have nothing in common but have to survive.
We just picked up a comedy called Search Party from an incredible group of young creators that is very unique in its voice. We also picked up a pilot called The Group from my old friend Greg Daniels, who created The Office when I was at NBC.
WS: You also have a different kind of sports coming to TBS.
REILLY: We will be launching our new eSports league. eSports is an emergent category of entertainment for a generation of gamers who watch elite gamers play at a professional level. The action is engaging and exciting, and the fans interact with it up to three hours a day on average. It’s a huge growth category. We are the first major media company to get behind it, in conjunction with WME/IMG, and Valve is the game publisher. It’s an accredited competition. It will be online four days a week and on television on Fridays. This is really a bold move into unchartered waters; we got a lot of attention when we announced it, and it’s a major business initiative.
WS: How are you increasing your offerings on different screens and with what kind of content?
REILLY: [Multiplatform viewing] is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that people are watching and engaging with more television. The on-demand viewing experience is a good one. We do have stacking rights, and we do stream. Giving people the ability to catch up and stay connected with a show outside the first window of programming is great. The cursed part is this is an era of transition. TBS and TNT have been leaders in getting stacking rights and streaming; however, right now, our MVPD partners don’t provide an ideal customer experience on that front. So that is a never-ending negotiation and attempt to create a better consumer experience. There will be massive change on that front over a number of years. Bingeing is a great way to experience TV, and consumers love it. As we have competitive platforms that make [bingeing] easy, we are looking to provide that experience for our customers. It’s a business in transformation, and consumer behavior is adapting quickly.
WS: I wanted to watch Legends and The Librarians, but I wasn’t able to authenticate online, so I just bought them on iTunes.
REILLY: Well, that’s what happens. There is a lot of press given to people cutting the cord, and there are cries for à la carte. I don’t believe that is a better customer solution. Ultimately customers would end up spending more for the value they get in cable—the price of the cable bill does provide great value. Steve Jobs said he made things that people didn’t know they wanted and that’s also what we do in television. Years ago you would have said, I don’t need that AMC channel, before AMC was a channel worth having. That is the conundrum, and yet people who want to stay within the universe can’t always find what they want and end up hunting and pecking around. Due to rights and distribution patterns, as a consumer, a lot of times you don’t understand why six episodes are here online and last season is over on this service. At times, I don’t even know where to search. I do this every day for a living and sometimes find myself feeling like the dopiest of consumers, thinking, I don’t know how to find this!
We have moved the consumer experience to the top of our focus. It is not an afterthought. We are going to do everything we can to optimize the consumer experience, some of which can’t be done as quickly as we’d like, but we’re working on it. We will also be evolving the commercial load. We will be moving to a more reduced load, to a more targeted relationship with advertisers, so we don’t have to overwhelm the airwaves with ad units.
WS: How much more important is marketing nowadays?
REILLY: Marketing has always been important, it’s just become a much more complex equation. It was never easy to get an audience’s attention, but there was less competition [for it]. We owned the biggest driver of marketing: our own airwaves. So essentially we would just create promos and turn up the volume on our own airwaves, and then create some key art and push it through other traditional media outlets like print and outdoor. That is now only one piece of the equation. It is still true that you have to use your own airwaves wisely, and you have to understand how you are targeting and segmenting your own audience; if you simply turn up the volume on your own air, you club the viewers you already have repeatedly rather than speaking to new viewers.
We announced a major reorganization. Jeff Gregor was promoted to a new position, chief catalyst officer, which speaks to the nature of marketing today, and Michael Engleman came from Syfy to be executive VP of entertainment marketing and brand innovation. [Turner] is a content organization, which means we are always on. It’s not, We have to launch a show, let’s fire up some promos and try to “open” the show. It’s about constantly putting out creative material on a daily basis, using the digital environment so [viewers] have a relationship [with us] and see regular and constant material. We understand our databases and our consumers, so [our marketing is] more data-centric; it’s basically segmented marketing and scale. It’s not one big campaign divided into four quadrants; it’s one campaign divided into 65 buckets.
WS: Tell us about the Turner Entertainment Programming Council.
REILLY: There was a time at these companies when it was good for business if people competed against each other. That doesn’t make sense anymore. We share acquired programs, and sometimes we buy acquired programs together, and sometimes it’s about ceding originals. We use all our assets and programming time slots to launch shows and make cross-promotional efforts so we use our inventory wisely. It’s going very well. There is no place for silos anymore, and fortunately they have broken down at Time Warner in a big way, but Turner in particular is really pretty seamless.