TBS Turnaround: How Kevin Reilly Changed the Buzz

The programming exec has reinvented the cable network with a slate of higher-rated shows that are luring younger viewers as he acknowledges that 'Conan's' daily format is likely to change.
Ian Watson/Turner Entertainment Networks
'People of Earth'

At least one Kevin Reilly bet appears to be paying off. Two-plus years after moving from Fox to Turner, the veteran programmer can claim bragging rights for reinventing the TBS brand. Before his arrival, the cable network was best known for repeats of The Big Bang Theory; Reilly quickly canceled what was left of the live-action scripted comedies and replaced them with a slate of bigger-swing series from a roster of Daily Show grads — Samantha Bee (Full Frontal), Jason Jones (The Detour) and Wyatt Cenac (People of Earth) — as well as established producers (Search Party's Michael Showalter) and new faces (Wrecked's Justin and Jordan Shipley).

All five plus Angie Tribeca, which was greenlighted by Reilly predecessor Michael Wright, have been granted additional seasons, and several have generated the type of buzz TBS has never seen. In fact, Bee has been celebrated for taking the mantle from former boss Jon Stewart as basic cable's go-to source for sharp political commentary. For now, Reilly has remained committed to Conan O'Brien, too, though he acknowledges that that show's daily format is likely to change.

Reilly has been similarly aggressive about rollout plans, including a groundbreaking 25-hour ad-free Angie Tribeca marathon, along with his strategy to reduce commercial loads. On the programming side, he quickly split the TNT/TBS development team in two, tapping Brett Weitz to generate much-needed noise as TBS' executive vp originals. "The first thing Kevin said to me was, 'Don't screw it up,' " says Weitz. "Even before the election, there were a lot of sad-coms and heavy comedies; that's not who Thom [Hinkle, senior vp originals] and I are. We wanted it to be fun and light."

Though TBS' ratings, like most cable networks, are down double digits, the network still managed to round out 2016 as basic cable's No. 2 net among adults 18-to-49 (behind only ESPN). And TBS' median age has dropped from 48 in 2015 to 44 in 2016, affirmation that the network's push to target the "millennial minded" — or what Weitz describes as viewers in their 40s who will enjoy the network's offbeat humor along with those in their 20s and 30s — is working. "Kevin is a risk-taker, and he's willing to take chances," says WME head of television Rick Rosen. "He's changing the perception of the network by doing all different genres — talk, scripted, nonscripted, animation — and a very determined look into the future with an emphasis on digital."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.