Kevin Reilly on Turner Turnaround, 'Narcos' Envy and Conan's Future (Q&A)

The former Fox chief also expanded on his decision to end 'Rizzoli & Isles' and pass on DC Comics' 'Titans.'
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Kevin Reilly

After a year out of the spotlight, Turner Entertainment chief creative officer Kevin Reilly emerged this week with an ambitious plan for his cable empire.

During his first Television Critics Association press tour presentation in two years, Reilly laid out the ways in which he intended to reinvent drama network TNT and its comedy sibling TBS. He announced that he’d be cutting the ad load in the former's forthcoming dramas by 50 percent, and reiterated his desire to increase and elevate the networks’ original output at both brands. Reilly, who joined the company a year ago after more than half a decade at Fox, stressed that the transition would take "the better part of three years to complete." 

THR caught up with Reilly following his presentation for a candid chat about the future of the business and his networks’ place in it.

You’ve laid out an ambitious plan to reinvent TNT, and the end goal is, in many ways, to do here what you began to do at FX. But that kind of transformation — from populist "popcorn" entertainment to "bolder" prestige fare — takes time. Does Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes have the stomach to wait that out?

There were times [where I’d] test the will — would they balk or say, 'Let's look at that a little carefully'? Some of that has been on the investment side and some of that has been on the programming side. If going forward is half as good as it has been this year, I'll be a very happy guy because they've been great. On one hand, it's a question of what else are we going to do? Are we going to do less? Are we going to retreat?

Well you announced from stage that you’d be wrapping up TNT’s Rizzoli & Isles, which doesn’t align with your new programming strategy but long has been a major ratings driver …

If I came in and said, year two of Rizzoli & Isles, we're pulling the plug on it, I would have probably gotten some [feedback]. They have not said no to me on anything and I don't think they would have said no, but I think they would have gone like, 'Really?! You want to do that?' And, honestly, that would have been a stupid move. I've got a show that people love, that's performed really well, why would I do that? Coming to the end of a seven-year run, it's an easier decision. Everybody involved, from producers to talent, are like, 'It's been a good run. We're going to be one of a couple cable shows that has made it to that 100-plus [episode] number. There have been very few cable shows that have made that many episodes. So let's go out when we're strong and not limp.'

Rizzoli is produced by Warner Bros. Television. Going forward, how important will it be for you to own your own content?

We're owning an awful lot of it now through TNT and TBS Productions because nowadays the control of the product — to do something like 25-hour marathons [the launch plan for Angie Tribeca] or SVOD — you want to have that in your control. The next tier down will be Warner properties [a corporate sibling] and then we do have projects at most outside studios, and if they're good we're happy to put them on. It's just the straight licensing of things is becoming tougher. On top of that, the studio business has been incredibly robust. The irony of a lot of networks is that you're paying this licensing fee and the studios are over there selling it to Netflix and having record years. And we're dying for the little win — like, 'I can push my own shitty shows into a package and make money, too.' You produce an OK drama and put it in your output deal and you're fine; you produce one that's pretty good, you're pretty good; you get a good one, you make a lot of money. It's nice to have that on my balance sheet rather than just licensing.

How much of the decision not to move forward with the DC Comics project Titans, also from Warner Bros., was based on the fact that you don’t own it?

It wasn't. Akiva [Goldsman] is a talented guy, [but] the script just wasn't there. There is an unbelievable glut of superhero things in the market right now and if you have a really good one, clearly people are up for it. But I just don't think that there's a need for one that, for me, at least on paper didn't seem to be screaming to get made.

Looking ahead, what will the cable landscape look like in five years?

It’ll look radically different. There will be fewer networks, and there will be some entities that will be recombined in new fashions — new corporate alignments. Some changing within a year, and then accelerating over the next three. It’s going to be interesting. Look, Viacom’s troubles are well documented and well deserved, in my opinion. Not to say there are a bunch of bozos there but I think they’ve bled the company dry, and its really suffered accordingly. They’ve been punted off by a small cable player [Suddenlink]. So, if they can withstand it, it means that you better really have some assets. Once those are cut loose, then it ends up being assets in distress that either go away or get purchased by someone else and reconstituted in some way.

Not sure you’d want to be MTV2 or MTVU right now …

For awhile, it looked like maybe Turner didn’t make the smart move by taking their handful of networks and not building five other networks off the back of TNT. Instead, they said, 'You know what, we'll take another nickel on top of TNT.' What you end up with then is very profitable core networks and not 22 networks that need to move around. Because if you have the double whammy where you're trying to move that many networks and your flagship networks aren't performing, then you have a world of trouble. There's going to be a lot of that going on — and cable has been the real growth mechanism at these media companies. The thing that I mentioned before is that it's an incredible business. It's really weird to be talking about challenges when you're in a multibillion-dollar business operating at a really high margin. It's not the worst problem.

The late-night landscape had grown increasingly crowded, and unless you’re Jimmy Fallon you have little to tout with regard to ratings. What kind of future do you see for Conan?

I sat down with Conan at dinner a week before I announced [I was taking] the job and I felt like he was toiling a little bit in obscurity. ... I said, 'We have to shake it up.' We started talking about things and shortly thereafter he started doing those remotes. The Cuba show was incredible. [TBS announced Thursday he’d be heading to Qatar with Michelle Obama.] There's a lot of people who watch the show who don't watch it on TBS.

And there lies the challenge of late night …

The 10 million views on YouTube are … worthless to us as a business. It's part of the Comedy Central challenge: when you do sketch and talk, it's more vulnerable to people watching the segments on your phone. Not to say narrative is completely immune, but it's a lot easier to watch the two segments than it is to watch 90 minutes.

Could you envision a future with Samantha Bee, who will soon launch her TBS show Full Frontal, but not Conan?

No, I don't want that at all. I want Conan around for a long time. The question I'm fascinated with in the next number of years is this online thing that he's got — is there a way to keep that going in some fashion that it becomes part of a more valuable brand rather than posting the worthless calories on YouTube? Maybe it's not a five-night-a-week show. He's talking about it. That's not anything we're doing in the short run.

Looking around the landscape, what new rival show has you most envious?

I really liked the way they brought Fargo around [at FX] and [Netflix's] Narcos was pretty great, too. The source material is so good. I’ve been tracking versions of that for years, so I got frustrated. In fact, we had one in the pipeline called Cocaine Cowboys, which was a great doc in itself, but I think [Narcos] sealed the fate of that [project].

Netflix’s Making a Murderer has generated a tremendous amount of attention in recent weeks. It comes on the heels of HBO’s The Jinx. Is the true crime genre one that you foresee exploring?

I love them. I just read an article about how, basically, cable fodder has become high art. Dateline used to live on this stuff; it’s essentially the same thing just teased out. You can’t fire those up in two days and just edit them. What gives them integrity is the length of commitment to the doc experience. So yes, we will be another destination that would be willing to help finish docs in motion.