TV Upfront

Kevin Reilly Looks to Seed TNT, TBS With Zeitgeist-Defining Content

From 'Empire' Builder to the New Guy

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Kevin Reilly, Turner Entertainment Networks programming chief
Kevin Reilly, Turner Entertainment Networks programming chief Credit: Jill Greenberg/Fox

Kevin Reilly's key card doesn't work.

It's a rainy spring morning in New York, and the newly minted Turner Entertainment Networks programming chief is rattling the glass door separating him from his 10:30 appointment. The sensor gives a little reassuring "meep" whenever he glides his card in front of it, but the powerful magnets that keep the doors held fast won't budge.

As a Turner staffer opens the balky door for him, Mr. Reilly grins and shrugs as if to say, whaddaya gonna do?

David Levy, president of Turner Broadcasting System
David Levy, president of Turner Broadcasting System

It's a throwaway moment, but an apt illustration of just how much of a New Guy Mr. Reilly still is. He officially started his Turner tenure at the beginning of the year, six months after stepping down as Fox's entertainment chairman, but even so, he's still acclimating himself to the place. Now he wants to make two very s mainstream cable networks a little less vanilla, a bit more current, with an eye toward playing zeitgeist tag with the likes of FX, AMC and HBO, Turner's sibling within Time Warner.

First, though, comes the 2015-16 upfront presentation. You're not going to see a bunch of clips from shows that have Mr. Reilly's fingerprints all over them when Turner unveils its upfront lineup at the Theater at Madison Square Garden this Wednesday. "The truth is, I just haven't been here long enough," he says. "There will be a few new announcements, a few pieces of business on the content side, but it's not like I'm just going to throw a light switch and there's all this new stuff."

When he takes the stage, it will be almost a year to the day since Mr. Reilly presided over what he thought might have been his last upfront gig. If it appeared as if something were off with his performance -- maybe the smile seemed a little less than genuine, maybe his pitch was a little less polished than in years past -- it was because Mr. Reilly already knew he was leaving. Both parties made it official two weeks later.

But upfronts are about what lies ahead, and Mr. Reilly is again getting ready to map out the route. During his brief interlude in front of ad buyers and their clients, his mission will be, in part, to suggest where he'll take TNT and TBS in the coming months.

"This is an incredibly well-managed place, but I do think the one thing that the two brands have sort of missed out on is the cultural transition that's taken hold at other cable networks," he says. "But we have the resources to catch up, and a key part of that effort will be to make shows that rise to the surface of the cultural conversation."

The resources he mentions are abundant. Turner generated a staggering $10.4 billion in revenue a year ago and is on track to scare up another $10.9 billion in 2015. Turner CEO John Martin said last fall that TNT and TBS will double their original-programming budget to
$1 billion by 2018.

If Turner's networks -- along with TNT and TBS, they include truTV, Adult Swim, Cartoon Network and CNN -- appear to have a license to print money, then David Levy is the executive who built and staffed up the mint.

While many observers thought Mr. Levy had taken leave of his senses when Turner and CBS in 2010 agreed to join forces on a $10.8 billion deal to share the NCAA's March Madness, the cooperative venture is now the most lucrative in all of sports. But the 29-year Turner vet oversees everything from the entertainment portfolios to ad and affiliate sales. Even before he began taking an interest in bringing Mr. Reilly aboard -- Turner Entertainment Network's programming chief, Steven Koonin, left a year ago to helm the NBA's Atlanta Hawks -- Mr. Levy was busy unifying traditional TV and digital ad sales under Donna Speciale, and reorganizing the Cartoon Network and Adult Swim division under Christina Miller.

When pressed on what viewers can expect to see on TNT and TBS in the next 12 months, Mr. Levy avoids the cliché about going "edgy." Instead, he makes the overarching strategy sound like a game of Tetris. "We're trying to find what I would say are open gaps in the very concentrated areas in the television business," Mr. Levy says. "There are tons of networks, all trying to find their own audiences, but if we can move ourselves down into those gaps, we're going to be successful."

While the details are still being worked out, it sounds as if the new-look TNT will try to steal share from FX's stronghold of younger, male viewers without alienating its already robust female base. That's not as much of a stretch as it may seem; FX's ultraviolent motorcycle gang drama, "Sons of Anarchy," boasted the network's highest concentration of female viewers.

"We're going to figure out how to balance that all out," says Mr. Levy, who is hosting me on yet another rainy day. The wind has picked up, and as the rain lashes at the windows overlooking Central Park South, his office is now like being inside some infernal car wash. "So, 'The Last Ship' was a better crossover, 'Legend' is a better crossover. And the new shows we develop for next year are going to take that to another level."

While Mr. Reilly characterizes the programming he wants to bring to TNT as "more adventurous," it's his track record of identifying shows that deconstruct and reassemble genre conventions that has Mr. Levy champing at the bit. "You've got to take your hat off to Kevin. He put on 'Empire,' OK?" he says. "Well, there was nothing like that anywhere on TV. And it's a phenomenon. Finding places, finding talent that is not out there right now in the marketplace is really what we have to do."

TBS will continue as a comedy brand, which stands to reason. The network owns so much syndicated content that nearly 60% of its gross ratings points are generated by off-net shows like "Seinfeld" and "The Big Bang Theory." According to Nielsen, "Big Bang" alone accounts for 20% of TBS's ratings deliveries. Moreover, TBS still has yet to debut four scripted comedies that it introduced in last year's upfront.

While TBS's original sitcoms haven't made much of a ding on America's funny bone, Mr. Reilly says he's not giving up on the format. The sort of improv-heavy, "snackable" shows that are Comedy Central's bailiwick won't really cut it at Turner. "Look, I love with a capital L 'Key & Peele,'" he says. "But I see how my kids will simply watch clips on YouTube and never make it back to the linear channel. It's not easy to reconstitute that audience."

Turner will join every other network group at the annual spring sell-a-thon with a data blitz. The company is entering the market with three data products, two of which it has used in earlier deals. "I really believe this upfront is the inflection point of our business," Mr. Levy says. "The relationship between linear and digital is now something that every advertiser is talking about. But more importantly, I think this is an inflection point between content and data."

Turner's Audience Now product, which lets the division sell targeted audiences across multiple networks using virtually any behavioral target an advertiser desires, could help encourage brands to finally move past traditional TV demos. "It's not just going to be about age and gender, and we're going to be able to do daypart-agnostic. Because that's how digital is basically sold," Mr. Levy says.

Early adoption is likely to be rather selective, he acknowledges. "People are going to have to change their mindset. These are audience-based guarantees. Very, very different. Now, do I think everybody's going to go leap in there? No. And we can't do it for everybody."

In a sort of beta test, Turner in last year's upfront did deals with four agencies against another platform, Targeting Now. Activations with clients such as Taco Bell and T-Mobile began in the fall, and the campaigns delivered an average 21% lift in delivery of targeted viewers, according to Turner.

"I think, by really homing in now on the target audiences of what clients really want, it's now going to really shine a light on how TV is definitely still working," Ms. Speciale says. "This is on all screens, but I think it's going to prove that television has the same dynamics as digital … and it further underscores how the two media shouldn't be siloed. The whole conversation is all about video on every screen, regardless of where it's being consumed, and that's now how Turner is structured and that's how we think. That's the way it has to be."

Wednesday's upfront presentation marks the first time the Turner nets will present a unified front to advertisers, so buyers will be pitched by everyone from Anderson Cooper to Conan O'Brien. Ms. Speciale is putting the finishing touches on the script for the show, which she promises won't go over the 90-minute mark. ("I was an agency person, so I promise you, you will not have to sit there all afternoon," she says.)

She's looking forward to the moment when Mr. Reilly will be ready to mash the development pedal to the floor. "Kevin's only been here since January," Ms. Speciale says. "I know he wishes he had a bit more time behind him, but the upfront, unfortunately, is here. It's showtime!"

If last spring isn't likely to make Mr. Reilly's personal highlight reel, the Fox era is now behind him. He says he's looking forward to what lies ahead, beyond the upfront, when the real work begins: "I'll tell you, I am having the most fun I've had in a long time."

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