Kevin Reilly on Turner Move, Industry Rumors and Leaving Broadcast Forever (Q&A)

"I’m done with the broadcast chapter of my career," jokes the former Fox chief
Kevin Reilly

Kevin Reilly is ready for his next chapter.

Six months after he announced his departure from Fox Broadcasting Company, the veteran TV executive announced earlier today that he’ll be taking the creative reins at Turner Entertainment. The job, which will be broader than predecessor Michael Wright's Turner post, will have Reilly focused on cable behemoths TNT and TBS, with additional oversight across the entertainment portfolio. He'll remain Los Angeles based, and will assume the title of president of TBS and TNT and chief creative officer for Turner Entertainment.

Shortly after the announcement, Reilly hopped on the phone to discuss the drawn-out process, the allure of cable and why he's never going back to broadcast.

Read more Kevin Reilly Takes Top Gig at TBS and TNT

You spent six months surveying the landscape. What did you learn?

I learned some things personally and professionally. Professionally, I learned that there’s a tsunami of activity forming out there. Collectively, it will certainly add even more activity in the marketplace, and some of it may prove to be potent, we don’t know. But what I can tell you is that my real takeaway after all of it is that there’s a lot of individuals and entities aimed at this new disruptive marketplace and all of it is looking at getting a toehold on a fraction of what the cable TV universe has in its power right now, both in terms of the ability to generate world class content and revenue and to create a healthy ecosystem. In everybody’s effort, whether it’s a brand new start-up or a very well-financed programmer, has a long way to go.

So, I feel like I really did educate myself and got exposed to everything, and it made me honestly that much more excited to have this job because the platform is the envy of many a platform in the making. And look, it’s going to be a tumultuous five years, without a doubt, and that’s one of the reasons that I came in here. [Turner Broadcasting president] David Levy is on his toes, and ready to take the company to the next level. This is a new era for Turner. [Time Warner CEO] Jeff Bewkes and I spoke very frankly about it, and we’re going to come out swinging.

What will that look like?

You have to really incent talent to truly want to be on your platform. You have to be very, very specific about what you’re offering an audience and make it compelling because they’re not just going to fall into it. And you have to really be contemporary in your delivery system because more and more the on-demand universe is going to be exerting itself. We are a linear TV channel, and we’re going to look less and less linear. We’re going to have to be really on our toes about how that is constructed, and Turner has already taken steps in that direction.

What we have right now are very profitable, strong networks and it would be very easy on some level to just put on a few more shows and keep going. But this is really about long term health and positioning for tomorrow. There’s not going be any rash moves. I’m not coming in with some secret thing that’s going to happen overnight. We’re going to look at both brands and there’s going to be movement in the brands, but, again, it’s not going to be overnight.

What will those movements entail?

I don’t want to get out ahead of myself on that. And nothing is broken. There’s been ratings erosion, sure, [but] some of it has also been systemic. It’s [about] how people are watching TV. The level of competition has been upped across the board, so we’re going to have to be really tenacious on the artistic front and on the business front. But the resources that we have and the fact that I don’t have to come in and fix anything -- It’s not “Oh my God, we’re losing money tomorrow,” it’s just the opposite – is really liberating to me, particularly since I’ve been in broadcast for the last 11 years where everything has to happen tomorrow and every tenth of a ratings point that you go down you start hemorrhaging money. We have the latitude to think here, and really be precise if and when we make a move. So that’s what we’re going to do.

Earlier this year, Jeff Bewkes said he wished TNT had taken more creative risks a la FX and AMC. But edgier programming doesn’t necessarily rate in the same way a Rizzoli & Isles on TNT does. Have you been assured that Bewkes has the patience to take a dip for a few quarters as the network looks to reinvent itself?

That’s why I’m not going to come in and pull the rug out of anything. We have a lot of shows that are actually performing. But I do think you need to be really resonant in this day and age, and you’ve got to carve out your spot in the cultural landscape because there’s a lot of stuff out there. Look, it’s going to be a slow turning of the ship.

There has been lots of talk about your hesitation about the reporting structure, which has you reporting to Levy rather than directly to Turner CEO John Martin. What changed?

That was never an issue. Unfortunately, the conjecture got out way ahead of us. I think there needed to be a new angle introduced as to why this was going on. If I could have one do-over, it would be that maybe we shouldn’t have sat down so early in the process because neither one of us were ready yet and then it just took on a life of its own from there. I had exploration to do; and so did David. We both agreed that we’d regroup at the end of that process, and we did. At that point, he got to a place where he needed to make a decision and I was still pretty overwhelmed and knee deep in it. For me, it was an education process as much as anything else. I hadn’t come up for air in a long time, and I really wanted to understand the marketplace deeply. And by doing that, it made me understand and appreciate the power of what we have, at cable in general and at Turner in particular.

We’re a month or so into the new broadcast season. Missing Fox yet?

I miss my friends at Fox, but I’m very, very excited to be back in cable and be playing within this really healthy ecosystem that is positioned so well to meet the challenges ahead. If there's one thing I can promise you for sure: I did find my way back to television in fairly short order, but I’m done with the broadcast chapter of my career. 

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