Following through on plans articulated at TCA winter press tour, WarnerMedia emphasized its new strategic direction during a brisk upfront pitch, highlighting a more blended approach to the formerly drama-centric TNT and comedy-focused TBS.
The company’s network brands are “stronger if we’re less bound by a single brand position or genre,” declared Kevin Reilly, who led TNT and TBS before shifting into a new role overseeing the company’s streaming service. The addition of dramas like Snowpiercer will give TBS “the most potent slate of originals of anyone in our competitive set.” More unscripted fare on TNT, including a new wrestling league and the Ann Curry-fronted medical series Chasing the Cure, will boost the network’s engagement, Reilly promised, as it continues to air signature dramas like The Alienist.
The cross-pollination is an acknowledgement of the current landscape. “The fact is, in an increasingly on-demand universe, there’s no way to wall in viewers today, no matter how strong your service is,” Reilly said. “We’re going to be more flexible in our approach to programming and go where the audience is.”
While he didn’t single out Netflix or other streaming services by name, Reilly said they carry a downside. “There’s a lot of great television out there today. But there’s also a binge-and-burn mentality that can dilute the impact of even the best content. We’re looking to be the antidote to that,” he said. “You’ll begin to see a more integrated approach through our whole ecosystem. The addition of our new streaming connection, plus our networks’ assets, distinct audience profiles and massive reach all working together will be an equation that few, if any, will be able to match.”
One scenario being envisioned, Reilly said, is a “first-season binge” of a show via subscription streaming,” seen by the company “not being a linear exit door but a connection back to fans for a Season 2 premiere on linear.”
Stankey set the tone for the presentation, which clocked in at a tight hour and 15 minutes, appearing onstage for the first upfront since the closing of the Time Warner deal last June.
“You’ll see some familiar faces onstage today,” he said, “but make no mistake. We are a new company.”
He said no details would be divulged about the streaming service, though “it will have an ad-supported component.” He added, “The need to connect with passionate consumers at scale is not changing.”
Underscoring Reilly’s message about integration, WarnerMedia updated the previous Turner (and general industry) approach to clip reels, offering a blended look at TNT, TBS and TruTV offerings, though individual shows were also broken out along the way.
While network brands have been updated plenty over the years across the always-competitive TV landscape, the mission to adjust course at TNT and TBS is occurring against a more urgent backdrop. WarnerMedia, acquired by AT&T for $81 billion in 2018, is changing its approach to programming, distribution and customer acquisition as it prepares to launch a streaming service in beta by year-end (and more fully in early 2020).
Reilly and Stankey both affirmed that the service would have an ad-supported component in “phase two,” when it fully launches in early 2020. No details about programming or other aspects of the service were revealed at the upfront presentation.
Reaching the market around the same time that Disney, Apple and NBCUniversal launch their own contenders for streaming market share and everyone tries to stem the Netflix tide, the streaming service will draw from all WarnerMedia brands. The upfront highlighted that IP with an opening sizzle reel blending everything from black-and-white Warner Bros. movies to NBA basketball. Notably absent from the entire presentation were three letters that hold the key to the company’s streaming future: H-B-O. The premium network will be the anchor tenant, but it makes for an awkward fit in the effort to woo Madison Avenue and hasn’t had presence at past Turner upfronts. But its brand in some ways hovered over the proceedings given that the operations of HBO and Turner networks have been combined. Warner isn’t the only company to walk a tightrope with advertisers this week — Disney similarly minimized talk of Hulu and Disney+ during its presentation on Tuesday evening.
This period of transition across WarnerMedia is symbolized by the physical move by employees into a single New York City headquarters building at Hudson Yards. The last waves of employees will take up residence there by the end of the month, ending the previous fiefdoms that existed in Bryant Park, Columbus Circle and elsewhere. Dallas-based parent company AT&T has diligently been working to pay down the large amount of debt ($170 billion at the end of 2018) it racked up from the Time Warner acquisition.
That drive for efficiency has led to the streamlining of distribution and marketing departments as well as a range of other functions. Voluntary buyouts have been offered to veteran employees, with more than 100 CNN workers leaving last month. A federal appeals court in February ruled against the Department of Justice, which had sued to block AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner. When the DOJ said it would drop any further appeals, that move triggered a restructuring effort that saw the exits of Turner and HBO bosses David Levy and Richard Plepler.
Conan O’Brien, in his annual slot at the upfront, did not shy away from either the merger or the streaming service. He proposed naming the new streaming entry “Stankeyvision” and “cast” the movie about WarnerMedia with AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson being played by “Muppet Guy Smiley,” the game show host from Sesame Street. Continuing the well-worn comic approach of lampooning one’s bosses, he joked that because AT&T is now calling the shots, the upfront would be followed by “a terrible reception” with “only two bars.”