TNT Aims to Turn Bold Strategy Into Emmys

Why This Matters: Plans to reinvent a network don’t often work, but when they do, the industry watches carefully.

The Emphatic Showing by TNT in the recent Emmy nominations, with The Alienist in the running for a half-dozen trophies, was a noisy announcement that the network’s strategy of offering more ambitious originals is paying off. With Kevin Reilly, president of TNT and TBS and chief creative officer at Turner Entertainment, calling the shots, TNT has swapped out closed-ended procedural original series, such as Major Crimes and Rizzoli & Isles, in favor of bolder serialized dramas that offer what Sarah Aubrey, executive VP of original programming, calls “a deeper dive into story.”

Those original series include Claws, Animal Kingdom and Snowpiercer. “That’s what audiences have an appetite for,” Aubrey said.

Slowly but surely, TNT’s originals slate is looking more like that of a premium cable network. Late last month, the Turner network picked up two more unique projects: Constance, produced by Robert Downey Jr. and starring Elisabeth Shue as a former beauty queen turned small-town bureaucrat; and Beast Mode, about a “brilliant yet damaged” female boxing trainer.

The Alienist, a look at a serial killer preying on street kids in late 1800s Manhattan, and the brainy gumshoes tracking him down, was first up in the TNT Suspense Collection. The series was based on the Caleb Carr novel.

The second series under the Suspense rubric is I Am the Night, debuting in January. That one tells the story of a teenage girl, played by India Eisley, given away at birth who starts to investigate the secrets of her past. She and a down-and-out reporter, played by Chris Pine, end up facing off with a Los Angeles gynecologist involved in dark debauchery. “It’s a very worthy successor” to The Alienist, Aubrey said. “It’s really juicy storytelling mixed with quality acting.”

Spending Money to Make Money

As befits original series with premium cable ambitions, the newer TNT series have heftier budgets than their predecessors. Published reports had pegged The Alienist at $9 million an episode, before tax credits, which TNT did not dispute. Animal Kingdom and Claws, on the other hand, are “very reasonably priced,” according to Aubrey, who would not divulge figures.

“We’re very proud of how much bang for the buck we get,” she added, “and what we get on screen for what we pay.”

Last month, TNT renewed Animal Kingdom for season four (Denis Leary was a guest star in the third season), and Claws for season three.

To be sure, not all of TNT’s bold originals have found an audience. Will, a look at Shakespeare in London before he established himself as a pre-eminent playwright, did not see a second season after its initial run last summer. TNT has not decided whether Good Behavior, starring former Downton Abbey star Michelle Dockery as ex-con grifter Letty Raines, will return for season three.

Ending their runs on TNT recently were Major Crimes, a spinoff of The Closer, after six seasons; and adventure drama The Librarians after four.

Aubrey, who was a producer on NBC drama Friday Night Lights, came on board at TNT in early 2015, months after Reilly took over. Among the originals she’s excited about are Tell Me Your Secrets, a thriller about a woman who falls in love with a serial killer, and Snowpiercer, which stars Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs and starts next summer. She describes the latter as “post-apocalyptic meets Willy Wonka.”

Dr. Jeffrey Jones, executive director of the Peabody Awards, suggested the TNT shows are on his radar screen. “Kevin Reilly is taking a lot more chances,” he said. “He’s done a good job of leaning Turner into more aggressive programming.”

Life of Reilly

Reilly is a well accomplished hit-maker. He started at Turner Entertainment late in 2014 after a run as entertainment chairman at both Fox and NBC. Reilly was an early proponent of cutting back on commercial loads at TNT, making the viewer experience a wee bit closer to that at HBO or Netflix, and elevating the effectiveness of the ads that do play. The newer TNT dramas see eight to 10 minutes of commercials. Aubrey notes that the 50 to 52 minutes of content is similar to what one might see on HBO. “I think that’s the sweet spot,” she said.

The Alienist’s Emmy nominations include outstanding limited series. It’s not TNT’s first series to get nominated for an Emmy; Aubrey said The Closer was previously singled out.

The common ground among TNT’s new series, besides their serialized nature, is distinct characters. “They’re more complicated,” Aubrey said. “They’re not all good and they’re not all bad.”

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.