With Kevin Reilly now officially in the Turner fold, the new head of TNT and TBS and Turner Broadcasting prexy David Levy spoke with Variety about the reasoning behind the shakeup at Turner, plans for bringing edgier fare to the channels and their shared focus on the M-word: monetization.
Variety: David, what are you hoping that TNT and TBS will become under new leadership? You’ve changed things top to bottom at most of the Turner nets this year.
David Levy: It’s been a long year for sure, not just at TBS and TNT, but we also changed the structure at Cartoon Network and Adult Swim. I now believe that we have incredible infrastructure and the management team to bolster these brands and take them where they need to go….Kevin is coming in to two pretty strong brands. TBS is the top (cable) network in adults 18-34 and 18-49 demos. TNT is coming off its best summer ever for original programming. I’m not saying there isn’t a need for change but it’s nice to have that as a platform to grow in.
Variety: Where specifically do you want to see them go?
Levy: Both have to get a little edgier. We can’t piss off the fan base that is there but we certainly have to transition and move to edgier content, louder content. Certainly some of our (recent) shows have been different than our typical shows — like “Rizzoli and Isles” and “Major Crimes.” It’s a transition and evolution that is taking place and we’re looking for Kevin to take us through that.
Variety: What is it that sold you on Kevin?
Levy: What excited me about Kevin is that he’s one of the most respected executives out there and he likes to take programming risks. He understands the value of digital and social media these days. We want to use his relationship with the creative community to help all of our brands. With the Programming Council we’re able to leverage the strength of our brands so that if a studio wants to pitch our entire portfolio they can come in and do that. If Kevin hears something that he thinks is right for another channel, he can talk to them. We’ve got to start thinking that way when it comes to developing our content, how we promote our content and how we sell our content.
Kevin Reilly: We live in an era where specificity is going to be ever more important in the creative realm. Trying to make programs that are all things to everyone is not going to work. Yes, if you do a zombie show really well it turns out many millions of people could really like that. But we’re in an era when you’ve really got to hit a bull’s eye and get a hook in deep with a specific audience first and foremost. And talent has to have a very specific idea of what they want to do. There’s an awful lot of content out there. If you’re so sloppy and wide it’s hard to really be resonant.
Variety: You inherited a broad slate of programs including numerous series that have been ordered but not yet on the air. Are you evaluating those now?
Reilly: I don’t anticipate making any hard left turns on arrival. We’ve got a lot of good shows on the air, I don’t plan to make any rash moves. …One of the reasons I came here is that it’s really about long-term positioning. We’re not looking to fix cracks tomorrow. One of the things I was excited about in this job is that we can breathe a bit.
Levy: There’s also got to be a transition in the amount of scripted versus unscripted that we do. It’s a discussion that Kevin will take us through. You heard from both (Turner CEO) John Martin and (Time Warner CEO) Jeff Bewkes that we are doubling our investment in original programming. The reason we’re doing that is we believe in owning more of our own content.
Variety: Because of the ability to sell them downstream beyond your own air?
Levy: You need ratings and you need advertising dollars, but there are other ways to decide if a program is successful now. And the only way to exercise those options is if you own your own content.
Variety: Should we expect to see Turner beef up its in-house production operation?
Reilly: That’s part of what David came to me with from the get-go. We’re going to be open to best possible material we can get from anywhere. But in this day and age having control of your destiny so you can utilize your content in the best way to engage the audience is an imperative. There is an in-house production effort and I think you can anticipate it being bulked up.
Levy: We also have a very successful studio business (in Time Warner) with our friends at Warner Bros. They put out some of the greatest shows and they have some pilots in the pipeline that we have already greenlit: “Cocaine Cowboys” and “Titans” for TNT and “Buzzys” for TBS. But monetization for us is important.
Reilly: That’s the game — everybody’s trying to control their content in a free market way. It’s really important for us to find the ways to monetize this content so that we can keep doing it. We need to be able to give talent a reason to want to be here. There’s a lot of platforms and places to work. We need to offer really good things for our talent.
Variety: Will you stick with the current construct of TNT being the channel for drama and TBS for comedy?
Levy: You might anticipate some movement there… Certainly there will still be an undertow of comedy on TBS and drama on TNT. We have so much in the way of acquired series (set to) run on these channels. But we may position them differently, we may brand them differently.
Variety: How long have you two been talking about Kevin joining Turner? Did the conversation start before Kevin announced he would leave Fox back in May?
Levy: When Kevin said he was leaving Fox the press was going crazy about him coming here. I kept reading about it and I finally called him and said, “We don’t know each other but from these articles it feels like you’re working here, so we should meet.”
Reilly: It was kind of serendipitous alignment of the stars. And after that call we actually did go out and meet. And as I we talked I thought, “Actually, I like this guy. This is a really good job.” But David hadn’t even really made a list (of candidates) yet and I was in no frame of mind to go right back to work. So we regrouped down the road. But I never really did stray from the conversation. I’m really grateful that David didn’t either. I was able to educate myself on a lot of fronts about what I wanted to do. That made taking this job that much more exciting for me.
Variety: It’s been about 11 years since you left FX, Kevin. Are you happy to be back in cable?
Reilly: I’m almost beyond words about what to say about that….Is hallelujah too strong?
(Pictured: Kevin Reilly and David Levy)