Mel's Diner: Turner's Michael Wright Working on His Six-Pack

WHO: Michael Wright, executive VP/head of programming, TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies
WHERE: Iroha Sushi, Studio City, Calif.
WHEN: Aug. 26, 2009
THE DISH: TNT will probably again stick with six scripted series next summer, as it did this season for the first time. However, that doesn’t mean summer 2010 will feature the same half-dozen originals currently on the network.

“I used to get asked, ‘How many series are enough?’ I used to say, ‘We’ll know when we get there,’” says Turner’s Michael Wright, executive VP/head of programming for TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies. “I’m pretty sure it’s six. I like where we are right now. I like having three nights with a two-hour block. It’s enough of a presence that you can create audience flow night-to-night. You can really make an impact but it’s still contained enough that…you’re not in a place of one of those shows becoming an afterthought.”
The Closer, cable’s most popular show, easily earned a renewal. None of the other shows rivals its ratings, but based on a combination of encouraging ratings, creative direction and advertiser appeal, freshman HawthoRNe and sophomore Leverage will be back.
Saving Grace will air its last season next summer. So that leaves sophomore Raising the Bar and newcomer Dark Blue sitting on the fence.

“This is the first year we’re not necessarily adding nights, we’re replacing,” Wright says. “You have to plan for failure. Once we have that six series number and we’re happy with it, we have to develop and shoot pilots thinking one or more of those shows is not going to come back.”

Among new shows in the works, Ray Romano-led series Men of a Certain Age is due to premiere in December. The network is also shooting a pilot for a science-fiction series from Steven Spielberg called Alien Invasion, starring ER’s Noah Wylie as a survivor of an otherworldly attack fighting to preserve humanity.

In July, Wright called the network’s three-night summer slate “a good place from which to build” in an interview with B&C’s sister publication Multichannel News. But he said he was going to “hold his breath a few more weeks” before assessing the network’s summer success.

By the end of August, he says he feels that he “just came out of a four- or five-month final exam” for which he’d give himself a “B+,” he says, “because it’s a really terrific grade but I also live in the land of the discontented. There is no A. If I had six Closers, I’d give myself an A.”

Indeed, summer 2009 may go down as the one when USA Network pulled off the biggest summer in cable history, but the last few months also marked a seminal era for TNT, the second-place basic cable network in demos in prime. “We reached a major checkpoint in our evolution,” Wright says. “One of the things I’m most proud of this summer is we know we have three nights a week of original scripted programming and all of it’s working. That’s only four years after our first swing at the bat [with The Closer].”

Wright is not afraid to admit defeat when it does happen, and victory escaped TNT in its early efforts to get into unscripted drama, he says. This summer’s Wedding Day, from reality superhero Mark Burnett, “did not work,” Wright says. “It was beautifully produced. My mistake was putting on a show that was already on. Lots of places. And I’ve got to own that and go, OK, learn.”

“We have a much better sense of what we want to do on the scripted side of TNT,” he adds. “On the unscripted side, we know we want to stay in that vein, but we don’t know for certain what the best non-scripted programming is for TNT.”

Wright prioritizes execution and accessibility. “The hardest thing to do, but the most satisfying, is to show that broad commercial appeal without sacrificing any sort of integrity. That’s the goal,” he says. “That’s what I admire about USA; they have a similar tack.”

According to Wright, while TNT and USA share an accessibility factor to their shows, that’s about where TNT’s similarity to its peers in the market seems to end, in his mind. “I love HBO; I’m a fan of the network,” he says. “I love FX. We’re playing to a different audience; I’m not trying to program to an exclusive audience. [USA’s] shows tend to be more comedic, and their sort of blue-sky escapist target is great for them.”

Perhaps most important in the definition of a successful TNT show is the fact that it focuses on the “everyman” experience, says Wright, a self-proclaimed populist whose favorite filmmaker is Frank Capra. “TNT is the drama brand,” he says. “The brand within that brand” is a celebration of regular people such as the main character in Closer, who gets people to confess by convincing them “I’m just like you.”

At the same time, he’s emphatic that TV is not a zero-sum game. “There are X number of viewers out there, and we’re all fighting for a big enough share of that to make our businesses work,” he says. “USA does great. Good for them. And so do we. Good for us. USA doing great does not equal TNT not doing great. USA’s win is not our loss.”

While TNT’s original-series slate was a big focus for Wright this summer, his purview encompasses all programming for TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies. He is giving himself “about 5 seconds to enjoy” TNT’s successes this summer, and now it’s on to the launch of Men of a Certain Age, TBS late-night show George Lopez, and pilot development for next year.

Unlike former classic-movie purveyor AMC, which has made a successful push into series with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, TCM is sticking to movies, he says.

TBS, on the other hand, could be due for a ramp-up of original-series production in the face of the skimpy pipeline of successful off-network comedies. With its combo of sports, theatricals and acquired comedies, TBS is “a network that just works” for the moment, Wright says.

But a change sounds like it’s brewing. “Original programming on TBS has been more about brand affirmation and reach. It has not been a major player in terms of the primetime originals,” Wright explains. “But looking forward–I don’t know this for sure yet–there’s a chance we will increase original production on TBS. There have not been as many original comedies to come off the networks, so you do have to look at it and say we’ll certainly be in the hunt for those when they come along.”

DINED ON: Wright is a confirmed Valley-dweller. He has “taken the abuse for it and I’m OK with that,” he says. Iroha Sushi on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City is one of a handful of his go-to sushi restaurants “if you ask someone to subject themselves to the Valley for a meal.”

The Valley appeals to Wright because it feels to him more like Northern California, where he grew up and first got into showbiz. He worked as an actor into his late 20s but started out with a starring role in a summer-stock production of Oliver at age 8. He was cast after being scouted on a Sacramento playground. “I love a slightly less urban environment, so I live in Sherman Oaks,” he says. “I like being in the foothills, the trees. I can pretend I don’t live in Los Angeles.”

Wright frequents Iroha enough that he knows the menu. While spicy tuna on rice cakes is pretty common among L.A. sushi offerings, Iroha is known for an excellent take on it, so we share an order of that. We also have a selection of sashimi and cut rolls.

The upside to the crispy rice spicy tuna: It is served in six truly bite-size pieces, lowering the risk of a business meal mishap. Much better than the usual big squares, whose mix of crispy and squishy makes them difficult to divide gracefully.

Iroha features a low-key room even at the full tilt of lunchtime. “When it’s not a billion degrees, you can sit out on the patio,” Wright says. “Being a populist at heart, I like the lack of pretension at this restaurant. It’s just great sushi.”