Turner Entertainment chief creative officer Kevin Reilly sketched out an ambitious plan for a thorough makeover of TBS and TNT on Thursday at the Television Critics Assn. winter press tour. The blueprint includes a big increase in spending on original content, a reduction of ad loads in drama series and the integration of digital properties with the linear networks.
Reilly said the transformation of the channels will likely take “the better part of three years to complete” and he acknowledge that he expected “modest” ratings at the outset as both channels change the traditional tone of original series.
Reilly, who joined Turner a year ago this month after six years as head of programming at Fox, said Time Warner leaders are backing the plan because the channels need to be better positioned for the massive changes underway in TV programming and distribution.
“In three years TBS and TNT will be radically different businesses than they are today,” Reilly said. “It’s going to be a hairy couple of years in the business in general. There’s a lot of change.”
Reilly emphasized that Turner and Time Warner brass are looking to a future in which multiplatform viewing is a bigger driver of the business. The changes in TNT and TBS’ programming profile and investment in digital are a clear effort to attract a younger and more passionate audience than the channels have at present, supplemented by digital offshoots like the Bleacher Report sports news and content site, which complements Turner’s investment in NCAA, NBA and Major League Baseball rights.
Reilly reiterated that TBS and TNT are adding $1 billion to existing entertainment programming budgets during the next three years as it ramps up a larger and edgier slate of original comedies and dramas.
Three of TNT’s upcoming dramas will be designed to have eight to 10 more minutes of program time and a 50% reduction in ad loads per hour as part of an effort to improve the viewer experience.
“We have overstuffed the bird,” Reilly said of ad levels on cable. “That not only dilutes the quality of the (viewer) experience but also the effectiveness of the ads,” he said. He didn’t get too specific on how the economics would shake out with fewer blurbs but he emphasized that Turner would focus on creating the kind of branded content spots that are often found on digital platforms.
Reilly confirmed Variety‘s report that Turner has launched Super Deluxe, a digital content and tech incubator operation based in downtown L.A. It has about 45 employees at present and has generated 12 million views in a matter of weeks. On the tech side, Super Deluxe is focused on experimenting with “mobile-first technology,” he said. “This will keep us connected with young audiences online.”
Reilly also talked up Bleacher Report and the potential of the E-League videogame competition sports league that Turner launched in September with IMG and Valve. The league consists of two seasons that run for 10 weeks, with a game offered each day online and a game of the week that will be featured on TV.
“These businesses are not add-ons,” he said. “They’re going to be integral to the the core of what we call our network business.”
Reilly’s long resume includes two stints at NBC and being part of the team that took FX into the high-end original series business nearly 15 years ago. The landscape that Turner faces with the reinventions of TNT and TBS is very different, he acknowledged. For one thing, there is exponentially more competition from 400-plus original series airing across dozens of TV and digital outlets.
“The years when one show pivoted an entire network in a different direction overnight” are long gone, Reilly said. He acknowledged that it’s “highly unlikely” that any one of the slew of new shows coming to TBS and TNT in the coming months will have the kind of impact that “The Shield” had for FX in its 2002 debut.
Reilly showed a lengthy clip reel of new programming for both networks. He gave a special plug to “Angie Tribeca,” a broad but hip spoof of police procedurals starring Rashida Jones, for being the canary in the coal mine.
Interestingly, “Tribeca” was ordered 18 months ago by the previous TNT/TBS programming chief Michael Wright but Reilly embraced it as the offbeat tone reflected the direction he wanted to shift TBS. And he also has a history with Jones and co-creators Steve Carell and Nancy Carell from “The Office,” which Reilly championed during his tenure as NBC programming chief.
The show bows Jan. 17 with a 25-hour commercial-free marathon airings of all 10 episodes of season one — a programming stunt to draw attention to the show, Reilly acknowledged. It will settle in for a regular weekly airings on Jan. 25.
“This is the beginning,” Reilly said of “Angie Tribeca.” “This is the pebble in the pond.”
Reilly cited a maverick spirit that permeates the Turner operation because of the legacy of its founder, renowned TV innovator Ted Turner.
“Ted Turner set the tone,” Reilly said. “We intend to rewrite the rules and lead the transition into the next era of what a TV network will become.”