At its upfront presentation in New York earlier this month, Turner executives announced a new four-year multi-faceted deal with Conan O’Brien, unveiled a partnership with Ridley Scott for a sci-fi programming block on TNT and touted the reduced ad load approach the company has been taking by cutting in half the commercial time on new TNT and TruTV series.
In an interview with Deadline after the presentation, TNT and TBS president Kevin Reilly spoke about possible changes to Conan, unveiled details about TNT’s upcoming Sci-fi and Mystery blocks and talked about the strategy of airing double seasons of comedy series on TBS and applying a less demanding version of that model to TNT dramas. Reilly and Turner president David Levy also evaluated Turner’s introduction of reduced ad load and the initiative’s long-term prospects.
“I’m eager to evolve my show into something leaner, more agile, and more unpredictable,” O’Brien said in the announcement of his new deal. That, coupled with discussions Conan‘s team had with Turner executives earlier this year about possibly cutting back on airtime — by either reducing the number of shows a week or going from one hour to 30 minutes a night — raised questions whether “leaner” means trimming its air pattern.
“I don’t even know specifically what lean means,” Reilly said about the “lean” remark. “I think he’s probably now going to experiment a little bit with the show as he’s now experimenting with a lot of things. I think its now really part of the strategy.”
For now, there are no changes planned for Conan‘s format. “His show will continue four days a week,” Reilly said.
The new deal also extends the Team Coco brand into digital content, podcasting, gaming, pay TV, and live events. “Those buckets I outlined, I think you’re going to see distinct business in each of these buckets, some of it tying together,” Reilly said.
Levy echoed his sentiment. “We don’t know how (O’Brien’s show) will evolve,” he said. “What we do know is that we’ve got an opportunity to be part of all these other things — events, touring, digital, his television show, branded entertainment – it’s a whole encompassing thing. We believe in Conan, his thinking, his creativity. As we move down over the four-year period, what happens with all that I don’t know, too early to tell.”
Of the other TBS late-night host, Reilly said that there will be more Samantha Bee specials.
After teaming with M. Night Shyamalan for a Tales From the Crypt horror block more than a year ago, TNT is now partnering with another top filmmaker, Ridley Scott, for a sci-fi block.
“That one got really caught up in a complete legal mess unfortunately with a very complicated underlying rights structure,” Reilly said of Tales From the Crypt. “We lost so much time, so I said, ‘Look, I’m not waiting around four years for this thing’. Maybe that will come back around but in the meantime, Ridley Scott had come up, who has so much creative enthusiasm.”
Reilly eyes a 2018 launch for the sci-fi block. The network could order pilots but also, “it could be a series order. When you got Ridley, there are projects he is potentially interested in getting directly involved.” That could potentially include directing.
As for taking another crack at launching a horror block, even if it doesn’t have the Tales From the Crypt branding, “I haven’t ruled it out. We don’t have a specific property today but we’re open to it,” Reilly said.
In addition to a sci-fi block, TNT also is prepping another programming block, TNT Mystery. The first two projects earmarked for the block are Deep Mad Dark and Deadlier Than the Male, both recently ordered to pilot by the network.
“You can anticipate that we would have under that franchise some really good close-ended year-round series,” Reilly said.
Last year, Reilly introduced double doses of the TBS comedy series, which started producing two seasons of 10-13 episodes (or a total of 20-26 episodes) per calendar year, twice the norm for a cable series. The strategy worked and will continue, Reilly said.
“I think the (shows’) growth is partly due to that,” he said. “I believe people don’t forget about the show, they like it and then it comes back for another little relaunch. So far so good, I think it’s helped.”
Reilly also is looking to extend that model to selected drama series, including TNT’s Animal Kingdom, which had a quicker than usual turnaround, he said.
That is an exception though, due to the fact that “they had a lot of stories in mind and such a great producing staff” under John Wells, Reilly said. “What I would hate is to rush things and then have a crappy season; then you have accomplished nothing.”
Also last year, Turner introduced a reduced ad load, with all new series on TNT and TruTV airing with less than half the normal ads. Levy and Reilly this month called the initiative a success though they are a little cautious whether the networks will stick with it in the long run.
“We had clients that came in last year and they’re happy and they are returning,” Reilly said about advertisers on TNT drama series with reduced ad load. “If we have more of a response – you saw Fox started talking about improving their VOD experience – this has to happen. If this room (of advertisers) begins to embrace it and others begin to embrace it, it will move the market, we are not going to do it singlehandedly. If we are having this conversation next year, and we are the only ones, I don’t know what that will mean, but I’m not sure we can go at it alone.”
Advertisers paid premium to be featured in the smaller commercial pods, which is how the network offsets the cut in ad time, though the number of dramas with fewer ads was smaller last year.
“We’ll see,” Reilly said. “I think that a lot of embracing of the reality should happen. This is how people want to watch. I feel very confident that many of these dramas are at the upper end of what you’re going to see on TV, so you better provide the best experience to view them.”
Levy believes that providing premium viewing experience will resonate with advertisers.
“If they believe effectiveness, awareness, recall, those kind of variables are important to them, then ultimately we can keep it going,” he said. “The results have been very, very good, so we anticipate keeping it for a long time. The viewer experience is the most important thing we have to focus on, and limited commercials I think is a very smart way for viewers and for advertisers. As an advertiser, you can stand out.”
There are no plans at the moment to expand the reduced load model to other Turner networks, like TBS. “We are going to see how advertisers support it,” Levy said.