TCA Journal No. 2: A Cable Revolution No One Saw Coming

Kevin Reilly is turning TNT and TBS into destinations for high-end scripted fare in a bold move that could shake up the cable landscape.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Reilly at TCA on Thursday.

Chief TV Critic Tim Goodman will be writing these journal entries throughout the winter Television Critics Association press tour, offering insight, analysis, big-picture perspective and snark from the two-week event.

We have seen a number of potentially excellent series already emerge at TCA, along with some weirdness — and who knows what other headlines are to come. But nothing is likely to top what happened Thursday when Kevin Reilly announced that he was essentially blowing up TBS and TNT to radically remake them.

Now, first you have to understand that this was not breaking news — most people who pay attention to these things knew he was doing it, but Reilly had for a year basically kept out of the public eye (skipping two TCA press tours was a big part of that) and passed on most opportunities to expand on the major meltdown of parts he was involved in. So, Thursday, when he gleefully raced the clock to tell assembled critics and reporters what had been going on behind the scenes, the unveiling was immense and intriguing — even if, in the rush of nonstop cable news and panels at TCA, not everybody made full note of the potential impact or why Reilly even took on the task.

But don't be mistaken: This is huge.

It’s also weird. First, let Reilly himself tell you what he took over last January: “OK. TNT and TBS are two of the most profitable and most watched entertainment networks on TV globally, full stop. Each month, TBS and TNT collectively reach more than half the country’s viewing population. TBS finished 2015 again as the number one basic entertainment network, as it has for the past four years. And TNT has ranked amongst basic cable’s Top 10 networks in primetime with total viewers in key adults for over 20 years.”

The logical question after hearing that is, “Then why blow it up?”

What Reilly is doing stems from a combination of what is hopefully a battle-honed perspective on dramatic changes needed to compete in the cluttered Too Much TV era; probably some hubris; and ultimately a desire to run TV channels making shows that matter creatively, rather than gloating about the very good ratings of an existing empire nobody creative really respects.

And that makes it interesting if not entirely logical from a business perspective. And yet, maybe it is. Ratings are down at both channels as they are for pretty much everybody else in this environment. Perhaps the idea of not doing anything about it — other than standing very, very still and hoping not to die, like broadcast networks are doing — was what prompted Reilly to revamp everything. Here’s a guy who, in stints at both Fox and NBC, saw the limitations and impending problems of that structure and, despite attempts to change fundamentals, couldn’t get anything to budge. Reilly also has roots at FX, starting all the way back when The Shield launched that channel into the creatively relevant stratosphere. So if you combine a disinterest in immobile structures and perhaps a greater disinterest in cable blandness, you can see exactly why he came up with his current (possibly mad) plan.

It’s early days, and Reilly did a fantastic job of illuminating the issues TBS and TNT face going forward, but he gave fairly detailed information about how he plans to change the user experience via reduced commercial load and some important but relatively boring interior-business changes. The short takeaway is that he and others at Turner have thought this revolution through very thoroughly so that the infrastructure will support everything else in some magical synergy I care less about than the actual programming.

About that: Previews of both comedies and dramas (11 all told) were very good and did that rarest of things — made me want to watch shows on each channel (the last time I was truly interested was with Southland), and that’s true for a lot of others who were in the room. If those shows turn out to be as good as they look, then Reilly has quickly incubated a qualitative revolution on two separate channels. He predicted that the programming profile will be clear in 18 months but starting immediately.

There’s so much to this that’s intriguing — using a year to get as far as possible into your new look on screen with nearly a dozen series is one of them — and all of the early successes or failures essentially begin Jan. 17 with the start of TBS series Angie Tribeca. Thursday’s announcement was a grand unveiling, a sculptor pulling the sheet off a statue, a chef whisking the lid off a freshly cooked, surprise meal. Voila, look what we’ve done, basically. In a world where Netlix and Amazon and Hulu are getting all the credit for fresh ideas and new rules, Reilly has attempted something big with two established (and staid) channels while most of us weren’t paying attention.

Of TBS, Reilly said: “We have a base of comedy viewers who flow through our network on a 24-hour basis. But we have lots of room for improvement on brand affinity to become a destination for originals, and this is where we’re really going to make our first big move. Because, to be a success today, you’ve got to be part of the cultural conversation and make some noise. So we plan on building on those comedy assets and the comedy audience that we have, at a time, frankly, which I think you’re well aware of, that most other networks have abandoned comedy or are diminishing their participation in the comedy business. I think that’s an opportunity for us.”

Seven new shows will roll out there, the rest on TNT (and more on both, of course, as Reilly rushes headlong into the revolution). Of TNT, he said: “As you all well know and have been a part of, drama on television is at an all-time high, not only in quantity, but thankfully in quality. After many, many decades, I think we all enjoy the fact that the art form of the medium, the artistic potential, particularly of drama, has really been fulfilled. The conceptual inventiveness and complexity of storytelling is amazing. And this is where we’re setting our sights at TNT. Bolder, more cinematic fare; series that are less by-the-book, more engaging, challenging and, we like to say, more muscular. And we’re looking to muscle our way right into the top consideration set of the very best of what’s on television, and hopefully knock out a few competitors while we do.”

The metrics of success will be difficult to gauge (especially if Reilly’s new shows deliver at the same level or below those he just dumped). But in modern television, ratings are no longer the end- all on whether a show is a success or not. Clearly, with that last statement on drama, Reilly wants TNT in play for major award consideration; he wants creative respect.

This is all great news for viewers, of course, provided they can actually absorb and consume more content. The qualitative riches of television seem to have no end in this Platinum Age, and Reilly just pulled off a major renovation on a content provider a lot of savvy viewers weren’t even paying attention to recently.

If there’s a bigger big-picture story coming out of TCA, I’d love to see it.


Twitter: @BastardMachine