TNT-TBS Chief Talks TV’s Transformation, Conan O’Brien’s Future

TNT and TBS are hip-deep in a “radical transformation” designed to keep the networks vibrant in a survival-of-the-fittest moment for traditional networks. That’s what TNT and TBS president Kevin Reilly told reporters Thursday morning during Turner’s portion of the summer Television Critics Assn. press tour.

“We’ll be radically different in two years than we are sitting here today,” Reilly said. He also flatly stated that some networks will simply go away as the industry adjusts to changing economics and viewing habits.

“Two years from now you’re still going to be covering as many shows but you’re going to for sure be covering less entities. (But) we will be here even as the definition of television opens up.”

TNT and TBS have undergone a programming makeovers during the past two years since Reilly took the helm. This summer marks an inflection point for TNT as it has a slate of four original dramas — “Animal Kingdom,” “Good Behavior,” “Claws” and “Will” — that represent a major tonal break from the network’s past. TBS has stocked up on quirky half-hours that are anything but traditional sitcoms, from the serial mystery “Search Party” to the edgy domestic comedy “The Detour” to the scorching political humor of “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.”

Reilly said the average age of viewers for TNT’s original series is 14 years younger than the previous slate of originals. He cited “Animal Kingdom” as the only returning original cable drama this summer to see ratings growth.

Reilly also emphasized the behind-the-scenes transformation in the staff at TBS and TNT. There has been significant investment in digital strategy and operations to help the company stay ahead of the curve on audience engagement and data optimization — wonky work that is making a difference for the profile of the shows and the networks, Reilly said.

“How people watch and the different ways they connect to TV — you’re going to see some expansion and radical transformation” throughout the industry, he said. “We’re going to be part of that — we’re already on the move.” The job of programmers these days is “not just about putting things in that (TV) box but redefining what that box is.”

Among other topics Reilly addressed:

Conan O’Brien: It’s expected that TBS’ late-night talker “Conan” will transition in the future away from a nightly format to a weekly or specials-oriented scheduling pattern. Reilly said the details are still being firmed up. He hinted that O’Brien’s relationship with Turner will be a prime example of a new approach to a talent relationship for Turner. “We’re beginning to put a formal structure on what it is to be a personality-based entertainer in this day and age of TV,” he said of O’Brien.” “I think (O’Brien) will be a little bridge to what I’m talking about and why it will be radically different.” Moreover, O’Brien’s work is “at the height of his career,” Reilly said. “He has such a skill-set — on his feet, live and unrehearsed. There’s not one environment that you can put him in that he doesn’t shine.”

Advertising: Reilly was pressed about the countdown clock that TNT runs during commercial breaks to indicate when the program will return. He said Turner’s experiments with reducing the ad load in its original series is paying off. The countdown clock came out of an effort to “organically create a better experience” for viewers dealing with commercial breaks. “With a smaller pod there is real awareness on behalf of the consumer and they appreciate it,” he said.

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