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In the wake of the $43 billion Warner Bros. Discovery merger, it’s often overlooked that the streaming-focused conglomerate also owns dozens of linear cable networks outside of CNN and HBO. And two, TNT and TBS, are experiencing the growing pains of the new regime – seemingly pulling out of scripted. But reports of a scripted demise may have been premature.
“We are absolutely in the scripted business,” says Kathleen Finch, Warner Bros. Discovery US Networks Group chair and chief content officer. “We are making more content than anybody, but we want to make sure that we’re putting it in the right place and making the right projects, because we now have so many hours to fill.”
Scripted content is new to Finch, who started her career at CBS News before becoming a programming executive at Food Network and then president of HGTV. She eventually held the top creative post at Scripps Interactive Networks, segueing to a job running all lifestyles networks when Discovery acquired the late cable company back in 2018. Now commanding an eclectic portfolio that includes nearly 30 brands — the merger united the legacy Turner networks (TNT, TBS, Tru, Cartoon Network), Discovery channels (OWN, TLC, the namesake) and Scripps (HGTV, Food, Travel) — the veteran TV executive spent the six months since David Zaslav appointed her to the new post researching her inherited brands and defining a strategy.
That strategy means thousands of hours of original unscripted programming, comparatively cheap and easier to turn around than the dramas and comedies coming out of her sister studio. But, for the entertainment networks, scripted remains very much in play. Finch says she’s looking for her version of Yellowstone — the wildly popular Paramount drama that’s done the unthinkable by drawing millions of viewers from middle America and the coasts to basic cable. She’s also focusing on TNT and TBS’ existing success with male viewers to seek out originals around sports. Expect Discovery’s similarly man-friendly docuseries set in blue-collar workplaces to also be a theme. The lead time is long. So, in the interim, a scripted original arrives by way of acquisition in early 2023 with TNT securing exclusive U.S. rights to Sky Max import The Lazarus Project. Finch hopes the series, splashy and broad, will further distill her expectations.
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter alongside US Networks Group CMO Karen Bronzo — before, it should be noted, the latest round of Warner Bros. Discovery layoffs — Finch made her intentions clear: “The doors are open. The purse is open. Let’s talk content.”
Six months into the new portfolio, where do you see the biggest growth opportunities?
Kathleen Finch With the sports audience that we have, we have all these men coming to us. We have to figure out how what can we do to hold those men. Because now, we have two giant pools — one of mostly female-skewing networks and then another of mostly male-skewing networks. On any given night, we’re controlling maybe 30 to 40 percent of the available audience.
Karen Bronzo That’s an opportunity to promote the key franchises that we have on the US networks but also some of our big Warner Brothers Discovery priorities from the theatrical division as well as HBO. We have an opportunity to do a tremendous amount of cross promotion.
Is audience the only difference between the different networks?
Finch Brands like TNT and TBS aren’t one thing, at least the way that HGTV, ID and TLC are. They are many things — sports, comedy, drama, movies. What they have in common is incredibly loyal, male-skewing audiences. And, by that, I mean 55 percent male — not 85 percent. So what can we create on both of those networks that will keep those men coming back night to night, just the way they do on Discovery or Food Network? How can we push the viewers from Monday to Tuesday to Wednesday to Thursday with a more defined brand lens?
How do you do that?
Finch We really play in the sports space. One of the things that we’re doing around sports is creating shoulder programming to hold onto those fans. AEW [All Elite Wrestling] pulls huge numbers, so we are working with the wrestling team to figure out what new kind of content can we build that’s not in a wrestling ring.
Bronzo We’re looking very closely at the duplication of the audiences between a sports and our other networks. We know that people who watch the Major League Baseball watch Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. That’s a real opportunity for not only Triple D but for other Food Network programming.
Finch Including with talent. Will we put Charles Barkley on an episode of Celebrity IOU? Will we have Guy Fieri calling a baseball game? There are just lots of opportunities to take our household names, seed them across platforms and pull those audiences back and forth. When we put this new team together, I put Julie Taylor in charge of all of scheduling. All of the network scheduling is being done through one top-down eye. She and Karen are making sure that we’re not stepping on each other with dueling tentpoles on a Sunday night that are looking for the same audience. When we look at our 30 or 40 percent of available audience that comes to us every night, we’re moving them around as opportunistically as possible.
For the legacy Turner networks like TNT and TBS, does scripted programming play an important role moving forward?
Finch Definitely. We’ve got a few things in development. We have a really cool series from the UK called The Lazarus Project. It’s going to premiere in first quarter of 2023 on TNT. It is big budget. It’s shot in Europe. It looks like a James Bond movie. We are looking at a potential Western and a potential paranormal title. But what we like to say, as we are thinking about our development in the scripted space, is “What’s our Yellowstone?” What is that topic that’s not just going to appeal to New York and LA but to middle America? We are very focused on that big, broad American audience and finding quality scripted content that we can make for them.
But The Lazarus Project is an acquisition, yes?
Finch It is an acquisition, and we will be the US home. We’re also doing originals, but originals, as you know, take a little while.
Tell me about your conversations about scripted with the creative community.
Finch I’ve been going out to agents and producers, basically talking about what you and I are talking. We are open for business next year. We’re going to commission over 4,000 hours of original content for the U.S. networks and we have a huge pipeline to fill. But the RFP is basically, “What is our Yellowstone? What are the scripted series that you think would work on TNT or TBS? What’s the next sports franchise that we should be thinking about?” The doors are open. The purse is open. Let’s talk content.
But doesn’t everybody want their Yellowstone?
Finch Absolutely, a show that everybody watches. [laughs] That’s been the secret to HGTV. The audiences in America are huge. One big mistake that a lot of people in this business make is program for themselves. You need to program for everybody, and everybody is watching Yellowstone. Men like it. Women like it. Older people like it. Younger people like it. It’s just a great show. And if you look at the Discovery Channel, we have all these tough, blue-collar American heroes. There’s a scripted idea to create with that background. It’s similar to what we’re doing with our holiday movies on Discovery+. We have four this year — two of them feature HGTV Stars and the other two feature Food Network stars.
Bronzo And the featured talent in these films have shows that premiere during fourth quarter. We’re going to use those nights and those shows to help promote these films for Discovery+.
Finch Imagine a scripted show set on a Deadliest Catch fishing boat or in gold mine or a still or in the sports world. We’ve captured an audience already, so what could we do to dovetail, from a content standpoint, that idea into a scripted format that would work on one of the Turner nets?
Ignoring outliers like Friday Night Lights, there have not been a lot of big, scripted sports shows.
Finch I agree, and I’m a huge Friday Night Lights fan. I think one of the secrets to that show is that it appealed to men and women. You’ve got to make sure that a show doesn’t just appeal to high school football fans. It takes a little bit of magic, and that’s one of the exciting challenges that we’ve handed to the team.
Speaking of sports, one of your first problems in the new portfolio was Charles Barkley going public with his salary and threatening to leave Inside the NBA for the LIV Golf league. Is that sorted?
Finch Well, that’s a lucky problem to have. Last week, I had lunch with Charles — who is just a lovely man. It was really fun to sit down with him and celebrate his new contract, because he is such a fabulous part of that team and he is just such a really special guy. I’m excited to find other ways to put him on television talking about something other than basketball. Because he has a lot to say. He’s just a regular guy interested in a lot of things. I got him excited about Celebrity IOU.
[Editor’s note — after the publication of this interview, Finch issued the following statement about Barkley’s contract: “I recently attended a great lunch meeting with members of the WBD leadership team and Charles. It was an amazing conversation centered on the importance of premium sports content to our networks and broader company and we all left the meeting feeling inspired. I jumped the gun in the THR story and was premature with what was shared regarding his new contract. I committed a flagrant 2 foul with this one, but we’re all excited for the future possibilities with Charles as part of Warner Bros. Discovery.”]
I realize you’re not programming specifically for either streamer, but that’s ultimately where your content goes. Can you just give me a little insight into the overall strategy of unscripted originals at Warner Bros. Discovery right now?
Finch Now that we’ve got this huge amount of learning under our belt, there are a lot of discussions going on. Obviously, we need to feed the linear business because that is such an important part of Warner Brothers Discovery. The amount of content that we are creating for linear will stay robust — and, as you know from Discovery+, we will test things back and forth. We make a lot of original content for streaming. The ID team, for instance, made House of Hammer. It’s been a huge hit on streaming. Sometimes, we’ll look at a piece of content, discuss whether it should live on linear or streaming, and decide where we think it’s going to have the best impact on our business. Right now, there’s a lot of testing going on, but the popularity of our content is very clearly determined on streaming. I see it being a really robust partnership moving forward.
A very rational argument could be made that there are too many cable channels — and you have 30. What do you say to that?
Finch If you’re asking if I always focus on 30, the answer is “no.” We have a suite of networks that are the top networks in the business. On any given night, seven of them are in the top 10. That is where we expend most of our energy — HGTV, Discovery, TLC, TBS, TNT, Food Network. But then, we have some networks where we pulse our energies. It depends on a lot of things. October is huge month for Travel. And we just brought Rick and Morty on Adult Swim. That is just one of those sleeper hits that is incredibly popular with a group of young men that is very hard to bring to television. Then, we have a network like OWN which is having tremendous success on Friday and Saturday nights with a group of unscripted unscripted franchises. We’re number one with African American women two nights of the week. It’s a lot of networks, but they all have their own personality, their own special audience. Now, more than ever, we can push those audiences around in ways that make the most sense. They’re all getting the kind of love now in a bigger portfolio that they might not have been able to have before.
Rick and Morty might already be your Yellowstone.
Finch I have young people in my life who finally have said that I have some modicum of cool now that I’m connected to Rick and Morty. It is such a phenomenon and we wish that we could just bottle it and sprinkle it all over the place. Here’s one unfortunate thing I have learned in this new world: animation takes a long time. It’s not like The Property Brothers. You can’t just throw them out in the field and get three more episodes.
You’re obviously still in this period of transition. When will you know it’s over?
Finch We’re still impacted by this Discovery-Scripps merger. It’s the new normal. But we are absolutely one team and it’s really cool to have a seat up front to learn about what Chris [Licht] is doing at CNN or what Mike [De Luca] is doing with the movie slate or what Casey [Bloys] is thinking about at HBO. David is such a great team leader. He’s so good at pulling people together. He really knows how to pull people together and give them a mission to follow. So, I think everyone is really doing great, all things considered.
Bronzo It’s also was an opportunity to just think differently — to ask everyone to not just think about the brands that they’ve represented but company goals as a whole. As as we transition, it’s a natural movement forward to be thinking about ourselves at the entire company.
Finch That’s not to say that we haven’t had our struggles because we have had to say goodbye to some really talented colleagues. That is the one unfortunate thing about a merger, of course. But I think people understand the north star, people are excited to be part of this company, and the enthusiasm is pretty palpable.
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