Exclusive Interview: Turner’s Michael Wright


NEW YORK: Michael Wright, the executive VP and head of programming for TBS, TNT and Turner Classic Movies, talks to World Screen about providing the audience with smart escapism.

WS: How important has it been for TNT to have strong brand identities?
WRIGHT: It’s vital today. My own personal belief about television is that people tend to turn on a television show looking for an emotional experience. It’s not an intellectual choice; it’s an emotional decision. People turn on the TV looking for something: I want to be thrilled. I want to be scared. I want to be excited. I want to be made to laugh. I want to be challenged. In that context, for a network to be very clear about what it stands for and the kind of experience it intends to deliver to the viewer, a brand is incredibly important. People have 250 channels available on their televisions. They’ve got an endless supply of options available to them: the Internet, DVDs and their DVR. With that many choices you better be really clear to the viewer about the sort of experience you intend to deliver, that’s where brand becomes really, really important.

There are brands within brands. TNT is the drama network, which is a marvelously specific and useful brand. But there is a brand within that brand, in terms of people coming to TNT for original programming. Internally we use the phrase “smart popcorn”, smart escapism. What that means is that on TNT we are going to show you a good time. Whether you are coming to TNT to watch a crime drama, an action-adventure series, a science-fiction series, it’s going to be a lot of fun. But I add the modifier “smart” in front of “popcorn” to make clear that the idea is to do it without insulting your intelligence. It’s a form of escapism but it’s escapism that engages your mind. That’s the brand within the brand. It’s a drama network, but it’s a really fun, smart popcorn kind of ride on TNT. Whether it’s Falling Skies or Major Crimes or Leverage or some of the new shows that we are putting out, they are all designed to take viewers away from the troubles of the day, take them on a great ride and land them safely at the end. That’s our brand at TNT. That specificity really helps us.

WS: Does a clearly defined brand also help creators who come pitch shows to you? They know exactly what you are looking for.
WRIGHT: Yes. People throw around Brandon Tartikoff’s name. I didn’t know him well but I was really blessed to have met him toward the end of his life and I had a series of lunches with him. In one of our early meetings he asked me, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “Well, I want to be you. I won’t be as good as you. You are such a great programmer.” I asked him a lot of questions and one of the most earnest questions I ever asked was, “If you could tell me one thing that networks have to do to be successful, what would it be?” And he said, “There are two things: first, you have to create an environment where talent comes to you first.” The logic being any idiot should be able to put together a partially successful lineup if the most talented people in the business are bringing their wares to you first. Conversely, if they are coming to you last, you better be a genius because a lot of the good stuff is gone by then!

So having a creative environment where they come to you first is rule number one. But rule number two informs number one. He said, In order to make them come to you first, you have to create an environment where the talent fundamentally understands that they are going to be creatively and commercially supported. Commercially supported means we schedule you thoughtfully, we market you enthusiastically and we stick by you, win or lose. But being creatively supportive comes from in that first meeting when you are sitting down with a showrunner or creator. We go out of our way in those early meetings to articulate and explain the brand, who we are, who’s watching this network and why. What’s the tone of the network? What do I really mean by smart popcorn?

Having that level of specificity is vitally important because the other part of creating a great environment for the talent and make them want to come to you first, is treating them with creative respect. If you spend a lot of time upfront describing the network and the brand and the kind of shows you are looking for; if you know which writers, and this is key, [write in a] voice is appropriate to your brand; and if you and the writer and both agree, this is the kind of show we’re trying to make. If you do those three things, then you get out of their way. You’ve communicated really well then there is no confusion going forward.

In previous lives of mine, in places other than Turner, I remember being in a few meetings where a writer would pitch a story and the network would buy it and it was so clear to me that the network didn’t really want to buy the show that had just been pitched, but they figured they would give notes [till they got the show they wanted]. And it was equally clear to the writer that the network didn’t want to buy his or her pitch, but the writer figures, well I will turn in a draft that is so fantastic that they will want to make my version of it. And then they wonder why they are so unhappy down in broadcast!

I think that clarity of brand and vision upfront married to equal clarity about what that writer actually does when they are allowed to do their own thing, sets you up for success. You might fail, but you need to start there to even have a chance to succeed.

WS: How did TNT’s original programming come about?
WRIGHT: The need for originals came about as a reaction to industry trends. If you go back to 2003—and tip of the hat to both USA and FX who started early with Monk and The Shield respectively and Nip/Tuck after The Shield—there had been this assumption that cable originals were somehow inferior either in production quality or writing or both to broadcast series. I think those three shows in particular really gave the lie to that.

It was evident to a lot of people that you could put an original series on cable and do something you could be very proud of, and that equally and more importantly, the advertisers would be really happy to put their dollars into it. So TNT was just reacting to the industry. At the time, in 2003, which was two years before The Closer premiered, [management] said let’s get in this business. We looked at our schedule, and if you are trying to introduce something new, the best idea is usually to look at who is already coming to the network and taking that audience and trying to lead them into a new program. In 2003, Law & Order was huge on TNT. It was on ten to 12 hours a week and [comprised] a third of the prime-time lineup. So we went around to the showrunners and studios in town and said, Monday night at 10 p.m., we are going to put an original series behind Law & Order. We’d like to do something in the procedural space that fans of Law & Order will recognize and give a shot at because they like that kind of storytelling and they’ll come to it. At the same time we’ll bring our own voice to it, it will have a cable sensibility, simply meaning maybe a bit quirkier, less traditional, with a voice behind it. We developed about ten scripts, shot three pilots [and we chose] The Closer. From the initial meetings with Jim Duff and Mike Robin, to the casting of Kyra Sedgwick and that marvelous cast around her, to Warner Bros. being a great partner, it was one of those shows that worked from the beginning to the last episode, what a joy.

We then said, Let’s see if we can find some success with a second show, which we did with Saving Grace with Holly Hunter, a beautiful show. After that, the goal was to starting to building out across nights. At first [our originals] lived only on Monday nights, then we expanded to two nights, then three, and last summer was a very happy culmination of a grander strategy, of getting to a place of four or five nights a week. We expanded beyond the procedural space. We began with those procedural crime dramas because that was the audience that was coming to us. With Falling Skies we were able to grab that movie audience that comes to TNT on the weekend to watch great big fun movies and to take that audience and flow them into a series and that worked. We then expanded into soap space with Dallas. So the really fun thing now about TNT is that you have this consistency of storytelling, whether we are doing nonfiction dramas like Falling Skies or a soap like Dallas, a great procedural like Rizzoli & Isles or Major Crimes, they all have that overlay of, it’s fun. The storytelling is very sophisticated, the character work is complex and respects your intelligence, but these shows are designed to entertain you and deliver that smart escapism experience.

WS: Are cable networks more willing to take risks and be innovative than broadcast networks?
WRIGHT: The answer depends on the network. There are cable networks that play it safe and there are cable networks that take huge risks. There are certain networks that one would look at and say, boy, that network sure is playing it safe. But I would counter and say, no, they’re not, they’ve identified the audience that likes that kind of programming. A network that has cultivated a certain kind of brand, knows its audience and delivers programming that someone might objectively look at and say, gosh, that’s pretty down-the-middle programming, isn’t necessarily risk averse. They might be running a very smart business because they’ve identified an audience, branded themselves for that audience and are programming to it.

On the other hand, there are other networks that have branded themselves as risk-taking, darker, more provocative, which is good for them because I personally believe that the great thing about cable is that there is something for everybody. We live more and more in a fragmented niche society, so good for us that I can turn on my TV at night and there are 250 channels and whatever experience that I am looking for on that given day, I am likely to find it because there are so many choices.