Top Turner Execs on 'Conan' Ratings, Passing on Charlie Sheen and Canceling 'Men of a Certain Age'
This story first appeared in the June 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Steve Koonin is not afraid to make enemies of his broadcast TV rivals. The Turner Entertainment Networks president famously stages his TBS/TNT upfront in the middle of the Big 5 presentations, first using the platform four years ago to blast the quality of broadcast shows. These days, the Atlanta-based Koonin, 54, and his L.A.-based president of programming, Michael Wright, 50, are still nipping at the networks, trotting onstage in May with Conan O'Brien (formerly of NBC) and the cast of Cougar Town (formerly of ABC). Their swagger comes from performance: TBS and TNT rounded out 2011 as top-five cable networks among the coveted 18-to-49 demographic with such series as Rizzoli & Isles, Falling Skies and The Big Bang Theory repeats -- and both have the ability to be, as Koonin puts it, "broadcast replacement." In the coming months, the former Coca-Cola marketing exec (Koonin) and onetime actor (Wright) will introduce The Closer spinoff Major Crimes, revive the classic soap Dallas and make their latest foray into reality with The Great Escape. The pair, married fathers with seven children between them, sat down in mid-April to discuss early hesitation on Dallas, a love for reality TV and their most controversial decision.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: You've said TBS is a few years behind TNT. How does the former catch up?
Michael Wright: TNT had a huge advantage in 2005: Law & Order. That show would routinely do a 3 or 4 household rating, and the demos were in the high 1 to 2 millions. It was a remarkable lead-in, and we knew how to use it. We went around town and said the winner of the pilot sweepstakes was going to go on Mondays at 9 p.m. behind Law & Order. We wanted a show that L&O fans would find recognizable and relatable but one that had its own voice, and we found it with The Closer.
Steve Koonin: Do you remember what our mantra was? We’re a hit waiting to happen. Monday, 9 o’clock.
Wright: We went around saying that. We didn’t dictate the show that we wanted for that spot; we just said here’s the kind of show that we want and the environment that it will live in. We haven't had that, frankly, until now on TBS. As much as I love The Office, it's not a blockbuster. Same with Family Guy. These are marvelous shows, but The Big Bang Theory is a broad-appeal comedy.
THR: As you evolve, who is the TBS target viewer?
Wright: We're programming to that Big Bang audience, which Steve calls the "comedy relatables." They don't want dark, nasty or snarky. That's the primary target, followed by the "comedy rebels." That's much more of the Family Guy or Conan audience: irreverent and a little edgier. Never say never, but we're not chasing [FX's] Louie. It's a terrific show, but it's not really what we're about. We're about the Judd Apatow or Todd Phillips audience.
Koonin: It's a group that's dealing with a lot of life firsts: first house, first big career and first marriage. We've spent a lot of time understanding those mind-sets so we can build against them. TBS should be their Prozac.
THR: You've bet big on Tyler Perry through the years. How does his fare fit into that plan?
Koonin: Tyler was a zig and a zag at the time, meaning there was nobody talking to the African-American audience. It was part of our broadcast-replacement strategy. We have one new series from Tyler, For Better or Worse, coming back this July, and we'll see.
THR: Are you looking to do more?
Koonin: We like where we are with it.
THR: You didn't look at Charlie Sheen's Anger Management. Why?
Koonin: Charlie was suing our company. We're one company. We work very closely with Bruce Rosenblum and Peter Roth at Warner Bros., and we didn't feel it was appropriate for us. And I have not one regret in the world.
Wright: Steve called me and said, "What do you think of the show?" Honest answer, I just didn't think it was going to work -- not for us. It might be a big success for FX, and I wish them well.
THR: You're moving into unscripted. What's the appeal?
Wright: We call TNT the drama network, and unscripted is the new drama for, if not the majority, a significant portion of viewers.
THR: How did the deal to move Cougar Town from ABC to TBS come to pass?
Koonin: In April, Michael got a call from the folks at Disney. It's a very good show with critical acclaim. It wandered a bit on the ABC schedule, and I don't think [creator] Bill Lawrence's dissatisfaction was a secret. We saw it as a chance to get into business with a show that we thought we could make a centerpiece.
THR: Getting Conan was big, but ratings dropped quickly. How has the show fit with your expectations?
Koonin: We put him in a situation where he could not have matched expectations. He could not have matched his opening week, and we didn't expect him to. The show is everything we thought it would be. We worked incredibly hard to build TBS as a comedy network, but we didn't have a face. We got one with Conan.
THR: What's the most frequent note you give Conan?
Wright: Be yourself.
THR: How do you plan to fill the hour after Conan, which has been vacant since Lopez Tonight's cancellation?
Wright: How we program it and who we program it with, we're still talking about. If you can't tell, we'd much rather be the tortoise than the hare. That same lack of impulsiveness is why you'll often see us give first-year bubble performers the benefit of the doubt.
Koonin: I keep the pilots of Sex and the City, Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond in my desk drawer because it reminds me what a show could be one day.
THR: What else is in your drawer?
Koonin: A rubber nose and a bunch of crap. [laughs]
THR: TNT's ratings have slid a bit. What's to blame?
Koonin: For a while there weren't a lot of shows to buy off of broadcast, and since we're tasked with building a business that programs 168 hours a week, having [strong off-net options] is a crucial element for both tone and volume.
Wright: We call it the Lost period, when broadcasting went heavily serialized with shows like Lost, Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice that [didn't repeat well]. TNT had an over-reliance on Bones and L&O. So what affected us in 2011 and early 2012 was something that actually happened in 2006.
THR: There’s a growing contingent that believes off-net repeats have become expensive and unreliable. Thoughts?
Koonin: We stand firmly in both camps. With Big Bang, we've got an opportunity similar to Law and Order. We’re bringing in 1.6 million to 1.7 million and on many nights Big Bang beats broadcast comedy. It has allowed TBS to get the bragging rights to number one, which is great; and, more important, it's expanded the whole network. But not everything works, and it’s getting harder because you’re buying these shows much earlier because the market is forcing it and we don’t have a ton of data. In a lot of ways, the acquired is every bit as risky as the original.
Koonin: Because when you buy something you give up a lot of control. You’re not in control of the schedule, the marketing or the promotion.
THR: You run these networks with 3,000 miles between you. How does that work?
Koonin: We talk three to five times a week. I call Michael a lot of nights on the ride home, and he calls me on the ride in. The head of most networks is a programmer; I'm not. He looks at things through a creative lens, and I look at things through a business/marketing lens. We complement and conflict a lot. I like to say oysters only make pearls when they're irritated. We are the irritant to each other.
How do you resolve those conflicts?
Koonin: Pretty much what I say. No, I'm kidding.
Wright: Aaaand scene. [laughs]
Koonin: But, truthfully, I think we've only really disagreed once in 10 years.
THR: About what?
Koonin: Whether we should keep Men of a Certain Age on. We both deeply loved the show, but we were the studio. If we were only licensing it, we probably would have taken another run. Instead, we were taking the full brunt of an extraordinarily expensive show, and at the end of the day, I had to make a business call that bothers me terribly.
Wright: In retrospect, I respect the decision. I thought it was one of the best things we'd ever put on, and it meant a lot to the perception of the network, but this is a business.
THR: What else do you watch on TV?
Koonin: We both love unscripted shows.
Wright: Survivor and The Amazing Race are two of the best shows on television.
Koonin: At 6 AM tomorrow morning, I’ll start downloading Survivor for the plane ride home on Saturday.
Wright: Want me to tell you what happened?
Koonin: No! I've already had to erase six Survivor e-mails today.
THR: Yet you're the guys who are reviving Dallas, the ultimate soapy family drama. What prompted it?
Wright: When it was pitched to me, my response was, "Oh, we can't do that." Then the script came in, and I said: "It's a great script. We'll pilot it, but that's it." Then I saw the pilot, and it was great. The point is, they earned it.
Koonin: When Michael called me about Dallas, my first thought was, "That show changed my life." I asked out my wife of 27 years on our first date on a Friday night in 1983. She said, "I'd really like to, but it's the finale of Dallas, and I've been watching all season." I said: "I have a VCR. Why don't we go out to dinner and come back and watch it?" It was season six, episode 132. So the idea that I run the network that's bringing back Dallas blows my mind.