Kevin Reilly's Move to Turner Brings Huge Questions

David Levy Kevin Reilly Split - H 2014
Courtesy of Turner; Courtesy of FOX

David Levy Kevin Reilly Split - H 2014

The executive faces big challenges as he assumes oversight of TNT and TBS, two of cable's biggest networks

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

After six months of on-again, off-again talks, Kevin Reilly landed the top Turner Entertainment gig.

The former Fox Broadcasting chairman will fill an executive hole left by longtime entertainment chief Steve Koonin and programming president Michael Wright, both of whom departed the company earlier this year. Reilly, 52, will oversee TNT and TBS, two of cable's biggest and most profitable networks on the dial. And while few question that he's a strong hire for the Atlanta-based company, many wonder about the challenges ahead.

Read more Kevin Reilly on Turner Move, Industry Rumors and Leaving Broadcast Forever

In the new role, Reilly's purview will include programming, marketing and business operations for both networks and larger acquisition and monetization strategy across the company. (He's expected to appoint a day-to-day programming exec underneath him, though whether that person will come from the outside has not been decided.) Although several other names, led by Sony TV's Zack Van Amburg, were bandied about in recent months, Reilly had been the early frontrunner for the job. He brings a thickRolodex, proven taste and a reputation for creative risk-taking earned during his time at Fox, where he exited in June after its fourth-place finish, and before that at NBC and FX.

Sources close to Reilly suggest one of his key concerns early in the courting process was reporting to Turner Broadcasting president David Levy rather than directly to CEO John Martin. (Reilly shoots down the incessant rumors, noting that the delay had more to do with needing the time to "explore" the landscape.) But with few opportunities available at that level, plus the power and compensation offered, Reilly ultimately conceded. He joins mere weeks after Martin announced a plan to double TNT/TBS' original programming spend to $1 billion annually by 2018, instantly re-establishing Reilly as a heavyweight buyer in Hollywood.

Read more Time Warner Has "More Than Sufficient Scale," Will Double Earnings, Jeff Bewkes Says

Still, the gig isn't without significant tests. The first he'll share with other top cable execs at networks including USA and Lifetime: transitioning from the no-longer-viable strategy of propping up primetime with off-net broadcast shows to filling the schedule with significantly more original fare, which often is more expensive and less reliable. "The digital revolution has blown up the old way of doing business," notes a top cable executive, who remembers the days in which he could run 16 hours a week worth of broadcast reruns in prime fondly. He adds of an increasingly crowded, SVOD landscape: "Now you're lucky if you can squeeze out six."

The second is more complicated: understanding the difference between what Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes says he wants versus what he actually wants. In an analyst call in April, Bewkes suggested he'd like to see TNT take more creative risks the way that FX — Reilly's home from 2000-03 — and AMC have done with their celebrated slates. It was a surprising statement about a network that has strategically billed itself as a "broadcast replacement" from the Upfront stage. And as Bewkes knows better than most, those broader-play shows like TNT's Rizzoli & Isles may not earn the network cultural cache but they do deliver the kind of near-term ratings and revenue that he and his board covet.

Conversely, edgier (and thus more niche) entries including Men of a Certain Age and Mob City have historically struggled on TNT, scrapped before they ever have a chance to prove what they lacked in overnight ratings they could potentially make up for in the digital long-tail the way FX or AMC series have. What's not as clear going forward is whether Bewkes et. al have the patience or the stomach for that type of reinvention he suggests he's after, particularly at a network group that has been counted on to generate about half of Time Warner's overall operating profit.