Kevin Reilly Reveals Ambitious Plan for TBS, TNT, Talks "Hairy Couple of Years"

The former Fox chief also discussed 'American Idol's' final run and his last few years at the broadcast network.
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Kevin Reilly

Kevin Reilly returned to the Television Critics Association's press tour stage Thursday with an ambitious vision.

With an egg timer running, the former Fox chief walked a ballroom full of reporters through his plan for a "total reinvention" of Turner networks TNT and TBS, which he assumed control of a year earlier. In doing so, he laid out the four pillars of that three-year plan, with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation and a series of extended trailers. "Premium original content," he began ticking them off. The others: improving consumer experience; new business paradigm; and investment in growth.

"It’s a different environment now with SVOD in the universe, the amount of competition and the quality across the board, so it’s not going to be easy," he stressed. "But I came to Turner because I was aligned with a group of people who I felt had a fighting spirit, some answers and the resources to back it up. It’s a going to be a hairy couple of years — the next three years in the business in general, there is going to be a lot of change [and] there are headwinds on a lot of fronts."

At one point later in the panel — after his egg timer had already rang twice — Reilly suggested he could have gone a different direction entirely with the two networks but felt too much had been invested and too much equity had been built in the network’s comedy and drama brands. “A big chunk of the audience may or may not say, ‘Hey, that's a destination for originals,’ but they do know they’ve seen comedy or drama on there,” he explained. “To really do an overnight redo would be extra pain that we didn’t need to do.” 

Reilly believes the opportunity at comedy-focused TBS is vast, since so many of his competitors have either abandoned or diminished their comedy presence in recent years. To that end, he is determined to make the highly rated cable network better known for Family Guy and The Big Bang Theory reruns a destination for buzz-worthy originals. Reilly has already ordered seven new series — six scripted, one reality — which he described as “unapologetic” and "daring." And in early February, he’ll add what is perhaps the network’s biggest bet, a late-night entry from The Daily Show’s Samantha Bee, titled Full Frontal.

Over at TNT, an established, profitable drama brand, Reilly is pushing away from what’s long been described as the network’s “populist,” “popcorn” strategy. During his time on stage, the exec noted that he’d been seeking “bolder," "less by the book" and "more cinematic fare.” Without overtly knocking the procedural hits on which the network built both its ratings and reputation, Reilly suggested his focus will be on lining TNT with the kinds of higher-brow, critically acclaimed serialized programming that dominate both the conversation and the awards race.

Since that transformation will take years, however, he said other holdovers like Major Crimes would continue, adding that he was pleased to have the show's robust audience. “And no network is all the same thing,” he added. Of course, Reilly did use the TCA platform to confirm that the forthcoming season of Rizzoli and Isles — a significant ratings driver with next to no cache — will be the show’s last. 

To his other pillars, he revealed plans to reduce TNT’s ad load by as much as 50 percent, enabling eight to 10 more minutes of programming time. "We have overstuffed the bird," said Reilly. The announcement, which will begin with the net's three new 2016 dramas, came on the heels of similar news at sibling TruTV and is all a bid for the company to find more effective ways to cut through and connect in a cluttered environment. He also ran through a list of Turner investments — Bleacher Report, eLeague and digital incubator Super Deluxe — and stressed his desire to rewrite the rules of the business.

The final question asked of Reilly was one about his past. Has Fox’s new brass made the right decision to make the current season of American Idol the series’ last? Not skipping a beat, Reilly responded, "Now is most definitely the right time,” acknowledging the challenges he faced during the show's later years when the declining ratings wreaked havoc on the rest of the network's schedule. "I loved my Fox experience,” he added, “[but] the last two years was not a lot of fun."

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