Michael Wright, president and head of programming for TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies like to say that in the tortoise and the hare scenario, his networks are proudly the former. That's why although cable has been in the year-round programming business for years, TNT will just this winter finally make an aggressive push into the colder months with four returning series and new medical drama Monday Mornings. TBS will also add five unscripted series in 2013. With both networks coming off a strong summer, successfully launching five new series between them, Wright is feeling pretty good about the expansion.
Wright spoke to B&C programming editor Andrea Morabito about TNT's evolving drama brand, what Cougar Town can bring to TBS and the network's late-night strategy. An edited transcript follows.
The Closer defined TNT's drama brand for so many years. With that show ended, do you see an opportunity to redefine that brand?
Yeah, 100 percent. The interesting thing is, by the time The Closer was leaving it was already our No. 3 show. Both Falling Skies and Rizzoli [& Isles] were significantly higher in the ratings. We really transitioned on the weekend to a slightly younger, more dual audience comprised of the movie audience and then later in the year, basketball. This allows us to really get serious about genre programming on the weekend. We just finished shooting a pilot with Michael Bay and his company, The Last Ship, which is awesome. It is a big, fun Michael Bay popcorn drama, and I mean that in the best way. That development would not have even happened were it not for Falling Skies. Frank Darabont, we just ordered his series LA Noir, which is another big Sunday night series all about the battle between the mob and the LAPD in the late â€˜40s.
Talk about the pickup of LA Noir. Why was that right for TNT and why did you only order six episodes?
Because period drama is tough and Frank is writing either all of them or most of them and he wanted to direct a lot of it. It's a very complicated show. And frankly, I really miss the days of the miniseries on TNT. This is not a miniseries, it is a series, meaning if it works it comes back for a second season. I don't want to give away how we're going to schedule it but with six hours what we can do is really create a focused energy around the launch of the show and the run of the show and give it a chance to really be sampled and grow its own audience and then, knock wood, when it comes back for season two, then we have the option to expand the order.
New TBS comedy Wedding Band premiered on Nov. 10 to a decent 1.8 million viewers. It doesn't feel like the other comedies on TBS, it's one-hour, single-camera. Are you looking to develop more projects like that or was it an outlier?
I think that the hour comedy is a tough format and I think that going forward we are more likely to look at half-hour comedy because it's just the way people tend to consume their comedy. We wanted to do multi-cam initially because [The]Big Bang [Theory] is just such a tent pole and why make it harder than it has to be to take a multi-cam audience to a multi-cam audience? Cougar Town, because it's got its own audience, was a great way for us to stick our toe in the single-cam waters. I love the idea of TBS being in both of those spaces.
Cougar Town premieres on TBS on Jan. 8. What are you hoping that show brings to the network?
Beyond allowing us to step into the single-camera world, I also love [Cougar Town creator] Bill Lawrence and I always have. His comedies are smart, they're contemporary, they're very progressive, but there's also a smile underneath it all. It's as much about single cam as his particular tone. That allows us to say to other people this is the tone we're after.
Conan O'Brien just celebrated two years on TBS. It was somewhat of a surprise that you signed him for two more years last winter given the modest ratings. Why did you make the commitment?
Because the show really has landed and trended up a little bit post-Big Bang so it's settled into a nice number that we're very happy with; we're doing just fine with that show. I think Conan's brand of comedy is so distinctive and so affirming of what we want TBS to be that renewing him was a no-brainer.
Are you planning to develop a show to run after Conan, where Lopez Tonight aired?
I think eventually, sure. To be honest, there's so much growth going on at TNT and TBS, there are so many people engaged in this growth, you kind of have to say, what are the priorities right now? There's already a pretty heavy expansion going on in that we're going to add five unscripted comedies next year, we're going to still be in three or four scripted comedies, so there's already a pretty significant expansion of original content. If somebody walks in the door with a great post-Conan show, we'd figure out a way to make it work. But it's not something that we're actively chasing right now because there are so many other exciting growth prospects out there.
You have a lot of new reality series for 2013 but so far TNT just had The Great Escape this summer, which didn't make much of a ratings mark.
Yeah, which is very much our way; let's do something that helps us figure this space out. We were very proud of the show. We weren't able to draw a big enough audience to it, but it was hardly a disaster either. I think that on a network like ours we have some work to do to make unscripted audiences aware that they can find unscripted programming on the network. We're very aware of it and it's one of the big tasks for us in 2013, and we're already aggressively planning against this by reaching out to fans of unscripted and saying, guess what: TNT is in that space too.
Great Escape, at the end of the day, it didn't get renewed but we learned a lot from it; we were very proud of the show. I made a couple of boneheaded mistakes on that one. It should have been serialized, it should not have been close-ended. And then I made a boneheaded scheduling mistake. For all the right reasons I put it on at 10 p.m. because I wanted to use the Falling Skies lead-in because Falling Skies is our biggest show by far in the demo, that show is young, and dual and a big giant hit for us. But the problem is, as we discovered, Great Escape is really a show with huge family appeal. The better play might have been to put it on Saturday night or Friday night or even Thursday at 8 p.m., but you live and you learn
Is there anything catching your eye from a syndication perspective on broadcast this season?
Well, I could tell you but if I said it in print it would raise the price. We still actively believe in the acquisition of broadcast series as part of the cable network paradigm. You have to look no farther than Big Bang Theory to prove what effect the right acquisition can make. The trick though is the right acquisition. We may be slightly less dependent on the mid-level broadcast acquisitions. That's where you say we're still going to go after the A show because everybody is, because that can really change your business. But it's the show right below that you say, do you do that or do an original or do something else?
Off-net repeats don't have as much longevity as they used to. Are they still worth what you pay for them?
Big Bang is defying the trend and NCIS on USA was an outlier. I mean it's declining now but it did so well for so long for them. I'm always the voice of staying away from absolutism. Everyone wants to declare things alive or dead in our business. I'm trying to be the voice in the middle saying no, it's all about rebalancing the portfolio. It's a huge mistake to abandon any form that has worked or has the potential to work because you want to be able to pivot quickly to the thing that suddenly catches on.
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