TNT Boss Kevin Reilly on 'The Alienist,' E-Sports and Transforming TV for an On-Demand World

Kevin Reilly - Turner Upfront - Getty - H 2017
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“The next three years [are] going to see more change in our business than the 20 years prior,” Reilly told the INTV conference in Jerusalem.

Kevin Reilly has some experience with disruption.

The veteran TV executive came up through the ranks of NBC in the late 1980s and early 1990s during the heyday of the “Must-See TV era,” helping to usher in iconic series such as ER and Law & Order that raised the bar for network drama and arguably set the stage for the current golden age of small-screen fiction.

As president of entertainment for FX in the early 2000s, Reilly commissioned The Shield, launching a new era in cutting-edge cable drama. And in his second stint at NBC, as president from 2004-2007, he pushed the channel where no network had gone before, with series such as The Office, 30 Rock and Friday Night Lights, fighting for these ground-breaking shows in the face of weak ratings. It was a battle he would eventually lose, as NBC, in Reilly's words, “invited me to leave” before his three-year contract was up.

As president of TBS and TNT and chief creative officer for Time Warner's Turner Entertainment Networks, a job he's held since 2014, Reilly is again at the center of a seismic shift in the industry. Since taking over, he has pushed to radically change programming at TNT and TBS to make two of the oldest (and most profitable) brands in cable fit for the world of on-demand TV.

“When I took over at NBC, I realized we were going over a cliff, [but] the situation at Turner was very different,” Reilly said Monday at industry conference INTV in Jerusalem. “[TNT and TBS] were massively profitable, the profit margin was incredible. Almost to my surprise. [But] the outward-facing part of these brands were not very successful.”

TNT had become known as the network of Rizzoli & Isles and Major Crimes — mid-range crime dramas that drew strong ratings (Rizzoli & Isles averaged 6.8 million viewers for its seventh and final season in 2016), but which skewed old (60-plus) and had zero zeitgeist buzz.

Phasing out the old procedurals, Reilly placed his bets on younger-skewing stars like Samantha Bee and Conan O’Brien, whose talk shows play big online. The exec pushed Turner to partner with agency IMG in the launch of the ELeague, a video-game sports competition that goes out on both TBS and online platform Twitch. And he bet big on The Alienist, the most expensive series in TNT's 30-year history. The Gilded Age-period mystery, based on the Caleb Carr best-seller, stars Daniel Bruhl, Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning and premiered Jan. 22 to solid ratings and, perhaps more importantly, critical acclaim.

“If you don't have programming that people are talking about, you aren't winning the war,” said Reilly, outlining his strategy to shift Turner's cable brands into a position where they can compete in an on-demand world, “which is where we're all heading.” As an indication of the show's impact, he credited The Alienist for driving 7 million downloads of TNT's online app.

“The next three years [are] going to see more change in our business than the 20 years prior,” Reilly told the conference. 

The exec admitted feeling the “various stress points” resulting from deep-pocketed competition from streaming giants moving into original content, with the likes of Hulu, Facebook, Apple and Snap joining established juggernauts Netflix and Amazon Prime. But he was optimistic that many traditional networks would be able to “strengthen up and realign” to the new online-first world, while at the same time being critical of the long-term prospects of many of the digital newcomers.

“[The production business] is very, very capital intensive right now, which is why we are seeing consolidation,” said Reilly, giving a nod to AT&T's planned $85.4 billion acquisition of Turner parent Time Warner, whose fate will be decided in a trial that kicks off March 19. “It's not a foregone conclusion that many of these new digital businesses will be able to recreate Netflix's success. ... And even Netflix will have their own mature problems in the near future.”