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Inside Turner Chief Kevin Reilly’s Plan to Reinvent TBS, TNT for a New Era

“You guys have crushed it,” TBS and TNT president Kevin Reilly enthused as members of TBS’ programming team raised champagne flutes filled with mimosas.

Reilly had gathered TBS staffers at NeueHouse Hollywood for a daylong off-site get-together back in September. The first item on the agenda for programming chief Brett Weitz and a dozen other executives seated around a conference table in a sunlit room was celebrating the hot streak of seven consecutive scripted series launches that had gone the distance to season two and beyond. Another reason for the toast: Three days earlier, TBS earned its first Emmy Award, a writing win for the “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” special produced by the “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” troupe.

All this activity indicates signs of new life for a channel that was mostly known for carrying “The Big Bang Theory” reruns at the time Reilly took the helm of TBS and its drama-centric sibling TNT, three years ago this month. Now Reilly is ready to take his biggest swing to date starting Jan. 22 with the launch of TNT drama series “The Alienist,” the most expensive series in the channel’s 30-year history.

Kevin Reilly Variety Cover
CREDIT: Cody Pickens for Variety

Reilly, 55, a seasoned TV programming executive with stints at NBC, FX and Fox on his résumé, has made it his mission to radically change the programming mix at two of the cable industry’s most established — and most profitable — entertainment outlets. At the off-site, Reilly pointed to the Hollywood offices of a rival cable-programming powerhouse just down the street as a cautionary example of what happens when content companies fail to aggressively stay in the hunt for hits.

“I can’t tell you for sure what rebranding with new shows will bring you immediately,” Reilly says days later in an interview. “I can tell you with certainty what happens if you don’t have them: That’s called Viacom.”

It doesn’t take the struggles of Sumner Redstone’s cable empire to remind Reilly of the precariousness of the business he’s in. The landscape for Turner and its parent company, Time Warner, has shifted dramatically since Reilly signed on in January 2015. It’s even changed since the time of the TBS off-site three months ago.

In October 2016, Time Warner was wooed by AT&T into an $85.4 billion merger in an effort to give both companies more heft to go toe-to-toe with Netflix and other digital upstarts with programming budgets that dwarf those of Turner and even Time Warner’s HBO. But AT&T and Time Warner’s nuptials are in legal limbo, with the Justice Department suing in November to block the union on antitrust grounds.

And Turner is at the center of that brawl. Before the lawsuit, the government reportedly gave AT&T a choice: Divest either Turner or AT&T’s DirecTV unit to get the deal approved. Whether or not the government’s opposition to Turner being included in the merger is politically motivated — Turner’s CNN is a frequent target of President Donald Trump’s ire — the focus has put Time Warner’s basic cable division squarely in the spotlight.

Reilly wouldn’t comment on the legal fracas surrounding the AT&T-Time Warner deal. But the roller-coaster environment of the past year has only reinforced his conviction about what TNT and TBS need to do to survive.

“I was really clear from the get-go: You need to disrupt yourselves or there’s not going to be a path going forward,” he says of his initial conversations with Turner president David Levy back in 2014, before he took the job.

The architect of the rebuilding effort at TNT and TBS has felt the pressure of a ticking clock since the day he walked through the door.

Reilly was surprised to learn just how much revenue the two networks contributed to Time Warner’s bottom line. In 2017, TNT delivered an estimated $3.4 billion, and TBS $2.1 billion, according to research firm S&P Global Market Intelligence. That further raised the stakes of the plan to “radically reinvent” the programming mix on both channels.

In Reilly’s view, the most urgent needs were better and buzzier shows and a more aggressive effort to make them available to consumers for on-demand viewing across various platforms. Moreover, he’s put great emphasis on building up ancillary enterprises, from live events to merchandising to digital content, around Turner stars such as Samantha Bee and Conan O’Brien. He led the charge for Turner to partner with agency IMG in the launch of the video-game competition venture ELeague — contests that are now carried on TBS and Twitch — and he restarted the comedy-focused digital content venture Super Deluxe.

“Turner had massive profits, and the business was doing just fine,” Reilly says. “The idea of disrupting ourselves was saying, ‘Do we think three, four, five years from now this is going to be the same business?’ Absolutely not. So we’d better start aggressively going into the face of it. If what you’re doing today isn’t vital, you’re certainly not going to have a seat at the table in determining what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

“I was really clear from the get-go: You need to disrupt yourselves or there’s not going to be a path going forward.”
Kevin Reilly

Call it the “Rizzoli & Isles” conundrum. TNT’s signature detective drama averaged about 6.8 million viewers in its seventh and final season in 2016, but the average age was 60-plus and the show had little traction in social media. The same calculation went into the decision to cancel police drama “Major Crimes,” which is TNT’s highest-rated show (averaging about 4.3 million viewers per episode in L7 ratings) and will end with the close of its sixth season on Jan. 9. “That’s not to say [‘Rizzoli’] and other shows weren’t successful,” Reilly says. “But they were playing in a vein that was not driving forward what’s defining the medium. We were culturally out of step.”

Three years on, with one year to go on Reilly’s contract, the results of his reconstruction efforts have been mixed, according to the traditional measure of ratings. Primetime viewership of both networks has dropped over the past few years amid the general decline in linear TV-watching. TNT’s new slate of original dramas has taken a bigger hit than TBS’ original comedies, but both networks now reach a younger audience overall — a key goal.

TBS’ weekly late-night comedy “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” now heading into its third year, has been an unqualified home run. Scripted comedies “The Detour,” “People of Earth,” “Wrecked” and “The Guest Book” have had some resonance. “Claws,” an offbeat mix of crime and family drama set in a nail salon, has been gaining some of the critical traction that Reilly craves: The New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum put it on her 2017 top shows list, calling it a “guilty pleasure” that got “richer, wittier and more heartfelt with every episode.”

But “Claws” and other new dramas including “Animal Kingdom” and “Good Behavior” have delivered only modest linear ratings. Last summer, TNT served up an unmitigated ratings disaster with the Shakespeare-as-young-punk vehicle “Will,” which was axed in September after its 10-episode first season. The show delivered an average of 392,000 viewers per episode, at a cost of around $5 million per hour.

TNT is going deeper into the arms race of big-budget drama with an even bigger weapon in “Alienist.” The adaptation of author Caleb Carr’s 1994 best-seller, rooted in a serial killer mystery set in 1890s New York, arrives with a price tag estimated at $9 million an episode — about $7.5 million after production tax credits are applied. It was the first big drama project TNT bought after Reilly’s arrival, and he did it in part to make a statement about the cabler playing in a different league. Upcoming TNT drama series “Snowpiercer” (which has just been ordered to series) and “One Day She’ll Darken” are expected to inhabit the same high-budget territory.

“Alienist” is dark, moody, serialized and occasionally shocking in its portrayal of the killer’s handiwork. It’s a big departure from the tone and genre of procedural dramas TNT had served up during the past dozen years since the cabler decided to go deep into the arena of original series.

The show came to TNT through Paramount Television and Anonymous Content with the pedigree of a beloved book and director-producer Cary Fukunaga attached, along with screenwriters Eric Roth and Hossein Amini.

Reilly was prepared to provide a budget that was enormous by TNT standards. But he didn’t count on the inflation boom for high-end programming. During the pre-production process, it became clear that TNT and Fukunaga — who was red-hot off season one of HBO’s “True Detective” — were at odds over the budget required to re-create New York City in the Gilded Age. Fuku­naga wrote the initial drafts of all 10 episodes but bowed out as director, replaced on the first two episodes by Jakob Verbruggen. Fukunaga remains an exec producer on the series.

“Alienist” is banking largely on the brand-name value of the book to stand out in the sea of drama series choices. There are no marquee names in the cast anchored by Daniel Brühl as the doctor chasing the serial killer and Luke Evans as his cohort, a New York Times illustrator. Brian Geraghty limns police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, while Dakota Fanning plays Roosevelt’s enterprising secretary. The series was shot last year, with Budapest standing in for New York.

“We’re using every club in the bag to figure out how to target, recruit and incentivize people to watch this show,” Reilly says. “We need to recruit a body of audience — let’s call them the SVOD audience — that doesn’t expect this kind of show from TNT.”

The urgency for Reilly’s initiatives to produce results isn’t just fueled by the explosion of high-end programming competition and massive changes in consumer viewing habits. The time frame is also determined by the end date of Turner’s most recent round of MVPD affiliation deals.

Turner had the good fortune to complete its most important carriage agreements between 2013 and 2015, just before the worm began to turn on Wall Street on the basic cable business. Thanks to its long-term NBA and NCAA rights deals, Turner locked in top-market subscriber fees for its channels in pacts that typically run five to six years. All of that baked-in subscription revenue was a big factor in making Time Warner an attractive acquisition target for AT&T.

Reilly (left) has assembled a crack team at TNT and TBS that includes Turner business ops topper Sandra Dewey, TNT programming chief Sarah Aubrey, TBS programming exec Thom Hinkle and TBS head of programming Brett Weitz.
Cody Pickens for Variety

Given the gyrations in the pay-TV market — from the rise of Netflix to the accelerated pace of cord-cutting — it’s highly unlikely Turner will command the same level of fees in its next carriage renewal cycle, even if Reilly and his team come up with the next “Walking Dead.” That means TNT and TBS have at most a few more years of flush coffers before the economic foundation of the business resets.

Turner “experienced a huge step-up in the last renewal cycle,” says Alexia Quadrani, media analyst and managing director at J.P. Morgan. “Going forward it will be interesting to see if they have the leverage to continue to get those favorable rate increases or if the world will have changed.”

Quadrani gives credit to Turner for being proactive in trying to add more sizzle to the programming mix at TNT and TBS.

“They’re well aware of the more competitive dynamic out there,” she says. “They’re making the investments in the two areas that have proven in the past to drive affiliate fees — sports and original programming. Whether that’s enough is to be determined given the environment that we’re in.”

Reilly joined Turner after a 2007-14 run as head of entertainment at the Fox broadcast network. His last years at the network were bumpy as Fox, like other broadcasters, began to grapple with the harsh reality that it was no longer the center of the television business.

“We were living on a shrinking bottom line accelerated by ‘American Idol’ going down,” Reilly says. “When you’re just grinding the balance sheet — that’s no fun at all.”

Reilly came up in TV through the NBC ranks in the late 1980s and early ’90s, part of the executive finishing school that also produced FX Networks head John Landgraf, Showtime chief David Nevins and Freeform’s Karey Burke, among others. During the “Must-See TV” heyday, Reilly helped birth such series as “Law & Order,” “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “ER.”

Reilly is well regarded in the creative community for his track record of supporting talent in good times and not so good times. He fought to keep “30 Rock” and “Friday Night Lights” on the air at NBC (during his second tour at the Peacock) in the face of weak ratings. A photo of Reilly being hoisted in the air by the “Office” cast and crew backstage at the Emmys in 2006 is prominently featured in his office at Turner in Burbank. So is a Bruce Springsteen concert poster from 1980.

Shawn Ryan, showrunner and creator of “The Shield,” the drama series that put FX on the map during Reilly’s tenure as entertainment chief, says he also got an early boost from the exec. Reilly insisted that Ryan serve as the program’s showrunner despite his lack of experience and the importance of the series to FX.

“I asked him years later why he had that faith in me,” Ryan says. “He said he wanted the guy who wrote that [pilot] script to be making all the important decisions on the show.”

Ryan says Reilly brings a strong sense of storytelling to the table as an executive and also credits him as being a good listener. When the two had differences of opinion on creative decisions, “he was always very gracious about it,” Ryan says. “He was open-minded and flexible enough to allow that he might not always have the right answer.”

Period-set “The Alienist,” starring Daniel Brühl and Luke Evans, debuting Jan. 22, is the most expensive series ever commissioned by TNT.

Reilly made headlines during his final year at Fox for declaring, with dramatic flourish: “RIP, pilot season.” In front of a roomful of journalists, he laid out a plan to revamp Fox’s program-development process to avoid the traditional frenzy of pilot production in the winter and early spring. The plan was splashier in its announcement than its execution, in part because Reilly resigned his Fox post barely six months later.

Amid the regime change at Turner in 2014, which saw big management shakeups across the company, Reilly found a welcome outlet for his interest in systems management.

“I still love a great pilot as much as I did the day I started at NBC,” he says. “I’m a TV lover, but I’m over being on the front lines of [development]. I want to be part of the dialogue of rewiring the system.”

Reilly recruited “Friday Night Lights” producer Sarah Aubrey, the former partner of writer-director Peter Berg in the Film 44 banner, to oversee programming for TNT. It was a coup for Reilly because Aubrey had long been in demand for high-level network jobs.

Aubrey made the move into the executive ranks because of her respect for Reilly and because she was intrigued by the duality of the challenge: Develop distinctive shows that turn TNT into a trademark of quality. “Will,” with its blend of Elizabethan history and 1970s Brit-punk aesthetic, was a big swing that missed, but it was anything but a cookie-cutter drama.

“We have to love every show we do,” Aubrey says. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we breaking through the cultural consciousness?’ We want to be a brand filter in the way that FX and HBO are.”

Weitz had been a programming executive at TNT and then TBS since 2008. He impressed his new boss by championing the Rashida Jones comedy “Angie Tribeca,” a spoof of police procedural dramas, which was in the works when Reilly arrived.

Tonally, the show was heading in the direction that Reilly wanted TBS to go — and it was like nothing else on TV. It also didn’t hurt that it was a passion project of Steve Carell’s production company and starred Jones, both talents Reilly knew well from “The Office.”

If there’s a criticism that Reilly’s newish staff at TNT and TBS have about the boss, it’s that he can sometimes be a whirling dervish who gets his hands into a little bit of everything at once, whether it’s the finer points of a marketing campaign or data systems software. But that’s probably to be expected for Turner’s chief of reengineering.

“The linear channels are still a huge and important business, and we want to be as vital as we can, and we want to have old-fashioned ratings, and we want to sell lots of ads,” Reilly says. “But that’s not the end goal of where the business needs to be.”

Reilly has spent a lot of time working on optimum ways to showcase TBS and TNT shows within the constraints of the current MVPD ecosystem.

TBS launched “Angie Tribeca” last January with a 25-hour marathon of all 10 episodes. Season one of TBS’ offbeat half-hour mystery “Search Party” was made available for binge-streaming over Thanksgiving weekend 2016, weeks before its linear premiere. The pilot for Jason Jones’ “The Detour” went up on Facebook before it hit TBS’ air. Reilly has also pushed to produce some of TBS’ comedies at an accelerated pace to avoid a yearlong gap between seasons. Just two years after its debut, “Angie Tribeca” is heading into season four this year.

“People say content is king? I think [consumer] experience is the kingmaker,” Reilly says.

The exec is quick to voice the exasperation of many programmers that the old-guard MVPDs have not adapted quickly enough to changing viewing habits in an increasingly on-demand world.

“Probably the biggest frustration of the age is that we’ve tied ourselves into a distribution partnership for the most part with partners who have not been focused on the consumer experience,” Reilly says. “Whether Amazon is good at making and sustaining an entertainment business remains to be seen. But they certainly are 100% focused every day on optimizing the consumer experience and reducing friction.”

Of his accomplishments so far, Reilly says he feels the most significant moves have been in reorganizing operations to deal with the hurdles ahead. There have been sweeping changes in programming and marketing. He’s amped up the company’s expertise in data analytics, e-commerce, multiplatform engagement and digital-first content, in tandem with other efforts across Turner.

“We ain’t Google,” he says. “But we’re trying to optimize everything we have, and build out our competency with data. There has been a massive amount of change across every aspect of the business. The thing I’m most proud of is seeing that people are not clinging to anything. They just want to compete.”

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