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TNT’s Wright Breaks Through the Clutter

TNT emerged as the most-watched cable network in primetime during the second quarter of 2014, breaking USA Network’s streak of 31 straight winning quarters dating back to the mid-2000s. The “drama.boom” network’s success was based on strong ratings performances from its postseason National Basketball Association telecasts — it averaged more than 4.5 million viewers during its 45-game coverage — as well as original series such as The Last Ship, the most-watched new series of 2014, averaging 5 million viewers.

Michael Wright, head of programming at TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies, spoke to Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about TNT’s recent ratings success and his plans to maintain momentum for the rest of the year. An edited transcript follows.

MCN: Congratulations on winning the secondquarter ratings race. To what do you attribute the network’s success?

Michael Wright: It was a long slog up the hill, but this is a competitive business, and it feels pretty great. What’s best about it is that it was a combination of all our different assets — you can’t point to one piece of trick programming. It was all about great sports, strong original series, both new and returning, and the lineup in general. It’s really the entirety of the primetime schedule, not just one or two shows driving it.

MCN: Time Warner Inc. chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes made some comments recently expressing disappointment with TNT’s performance. Does this ratings win vindicate what you have been working toward with regard to TNT’s content lineup?

MW: I’m a cagey old veteran and I’m not going to answer that question directly — that’s a question that is better asked of people beyond me. Here’s what I will say: I feel very good about where TNT is right now, but also, more importantly, about where it’s going. I know and the people here know what’s coming down the pike. Two years ago, we knew that we needed to make some changes and to refresh some things, and as you know, it takes about 18 months to two years to see the fruits of that effort, and what’s nice right now is that with The Last Ship, Legends, The Librarians, Proof and some of the pilots we’re going to order this summer, it’s the most exciting slate of original series for me since I’ve been here.

From a true storytelling perspective, I love genre fare and I love the fact that’s where TNT is going. I love that audiences are embracing it on the network, which affirms the strategy, and it allows us to invite even more storytellers into the tent because I know that looking forward [to] where TNT is going is pretty exciting.

MCN: How much did sports programming, and in particular TNT’s NBA coverage, play into the network’s recent ratings success?

MW: The guys at TNT Sports are really good. Their coverage of the NBA and the NCAA [Men’s Basketball Tournament] is as good as or better than anything else on television from a pure brand and network perception standpoint. It used to be that the NBA was great television but it didn’t inform the original content much. For the first time now, we were able to market The Last Ship and Legends during the NBA Playoffs, and we can see that we’re really reaching viewers who might watch it. We also started buying movies that go toward this younger and more dual-genre audience.

So now you have sports, movies and original series beginning to line up so you can actually benefit from flow, even in the digital era where viewers flowing from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. are less powerful than they used to be. Environment still matters. If you’re coming to an NBA game or a weekend movie, you’re taking advantage of your assets and building off of them.

MCN: How do you maintain TNT’s ratings momentum going forward?

MW: Ratings momentum is about staying the course and continuing to market and build awareness. The single biggest challenge for ratings, beyond making a good show, is to create awareness. You’re in a 300-channel universe between what’s on the channel guide and what’s on your DVR, what’s on a SVOD and VOD platform or what’s on PlayStation, so I feel that passive viewing in primetime is a thing of the past. I’m not just going to leave the TV on channel X at 9 because of what I was watching at 8. People have too many choices, and you can tell that they’ve figured it out.

People have adopted all of these technologies and embraced them, and it’s completely informing how they watch television. In a world where the average viewer has that many choices, the single most important thing you can do is make people aware of it. It’s so brutally difficult to break through. There have been a lot of good TV shows both on TNT and other competitor networks that didn’t break through, not because they weren’t good, but [because] people have too many choices. That’s the challenge.