Wright plants TNT in unscripted territory

Realscreen chats with TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies president and head of programming Michael Wright about TNT's first big reality series, The Great Escape, and his plans to significantly ramp up the U.S. cable net's unscripted offering over the next five years.
July 11, 2012

TNT is expanding its definition of drama. Over the past decade, Michael Wright, who was recently promoted to president, head of programming for Turner-owned networks TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies, has overseen the U.S. cable network’s push into original scripted series with dramatic offerings such as Falling Skies, Dallas and The Closer.

Now, he’s guiding the U.S. cable net and its sister channel TBS, into unscripted territory. The company has brought on former Mark Burnett Productions exec Daniel Eilenberg as SVP, unscripted development for cable networks TBS and TNT, part of its strategy to break the channels out of summer programming and segue into a year-round schedule in 2013, as well as a larger plan to extend the networks into cross-platform content portals through initiatives such as its mobile app, TV Everywhere.

TNT’s first foray into reality is the competition show The Great Escape from executive producers Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and The Amazing Race‘s Bertram van Munster, and next year it will begin airing the action-adventure competition series 72 Hours and Boston Blue, an unscripted cop show from executive producer Donnie Wahlberg.

Execs are mulling over several other unscripted shows but Wright is taking it slow, focusing solely on The Great Escape this year in order to introduce viewers to the the genre. After that, TNT will focus on action-adventure reality competitions and crime and investigation, two reality formats that can be easily scheduled to complement its Hollywood movies and crime dramas.

Its development slate includes a handful of docu-soaps, including the thoroughbred horse-racing series Rivals from BermanBraun, Promark Productions and Go Go Luckey, and music competition series American Troubadours from So You Think You Can Dance producer Nigel Lythgoe.

Realscreen spoke with Wright about the type of unscripted series he’s looking to program on TNT, his expectations for The Great Escape and his long-term plan to increase the amount of original programming on the network over the next five years.

Why is TNT moving into the reality space?

Any network that’s branded as we are – as a drama network – and is not in the unscripted space is committing something of a sin of omission.

Why is that?

For drama fans, unscripted has become as relevant as programming in the scripted space. When unscripted is good, it’s great and when it’s bad, it’s bad – just like scripted. Any notion that the success of unscripted storytelling is a fad or a trend or a moment in time has been proven to be false and it’s just taken its place with all other forms of programming as a viable, relevant, important piece of the programming landscape. Therefore TNT certainly is a drama network and TBS is a comedy network but both networks need to be in that space to remain relevant to contemporary viewers.

Why has it taken so long for TNT to come to that realization?

I think it’s taken a while because the network was built on the backbone of scripted success, both with acquisitions – like back in the day with Law & Order and Bones – and weekend theatrical films. The network was really built on scripted programming and sports to begin with and when something is working you make change when you make it: slowly and thoughtfully. In the case of TNT, I wish we’d been in that space a couple of years ago frankly, but that’s OK. I’m glad we’re there now.

What are your goals moving into unscripted? How much of your slate do you anticipate being unscripted?

It’s very difficult to quantify other than to say we’re going to make an energetic entry into the format. We’re not tiptoeing in. We’re committed to it. It is baked into our plans as we take the network forward. One of the larger agendas for TNT and TBS is to move into year-round programming. We’re moving out of our safety zone of primarily living in the summer and then a few weeks in the winter to a full-year-round video content company. Part of that is to expand the programming portfolio.

Are you happy with the ratings of The Great Escape?

One of the things about The Great Escape out of the gate is the composition of that audience is extraordinarily young. It’s drawing 1.5 million viewers. For a scripted project on TNT that would be pretty light but 80% of that audience is in the demo: TNT’s core audience is 25 to 54 – that’s where that network is focused. For its first two weeks there was no erosion week one to week two. It did a million in that demo which was really solid for us and actually exceeded our expectations a little bit.

Can you be specific about your expectations?

If people look at the ratings for our first few unscripted shows and the ratings for our scripted shows and try to compare them apples to apples, that’s not a very realistic programming point of view. It’s a new form for us. We’re not placing the same expectations on our unscripted efforts as we are on our scripted efforts. We have a track record in scripted programming. For our initial unscripted programming we’re going to give the shows time to grow and for the audience to begin to associate both TNT and TBS with that kind of storytelling.

How many unscripted shows do you have in production and development?

Well, we’ve got The Great Escape on the air right now. We’ve order a show called 72 Hours, which is also a big, action-adventure competition show that will premiere in 2013. Both 72 Hours and Great Escape have been developed against a very specific target. We’ve identified two areas that we’re really targeting initially for TNT. One is action-adventure competition and the other is crime and investigation. We’ve always believed that one of the paths to success is to look at who is already coming to the network and the kind of programming that they’re already coming to watch and trying to program to that taste.

It’s a little different in unscripted. One of the things that’s really different and important to note in terms of our entry into the unscripted space is we are keenly aware that we don’t have that audience yet on the network. We’re going to have to reach out to a hopefully complementary but slightly different audience who doesn’t yet associate TNT with great unscripted storytelling. One of the ways we see doing that is to look for unscripted content that’s compatible to what we are drawing viewers to.

The other show that we recently announced is Boston Blue. It’s a show about detectives who work in some of the toughest neighborhoods in Boston and it’s very much an unscripted character-based procedural. We’re going to introduce the audience to five or six central characters: real detectives who are fascinating and the very cool reveal from the pilot is they’re also very funny. So the show works as a character drama but also as a police procedural because on every episode you’re going to see these guys investigate two or three cases and at least one of those cases is worked to its resolution.

What was the pitch for The Great Escape like and what won you over?

What we liked about it was its simplicity and its accessibility. The pitch was very straight-forward: we’re going to take three teams of two people, we’re gonna lock them up in confinement and the first team to break out of that confinement and find their way to the host at the end of the episode wins the money. Across the course of development, the mechanism of the escape became more interesting and more developed and it resulted in the show that exists now.

The other part of the pitch that we liked right away… was that it should feel like the contestants are being dropped into the climactic scene of an action adventure movie. This should feel like the third act of your favorite summer popcorn movie but instead of actors in a scripted drama you’re seeing real people dropped into a contrived space but the competition is real.

It feels like exactly what they pitched: taking real people and dropping them into an action adventure movie and I don’t think that’s on TV right now, which is always one of the filters you’re looking through when buying programming. Is that already on? Is it not? Sometimes you buy stuff that’s already on and that’s OK but in this instance we thought, how cool – it has all the vitamins and minerals of a great action-adventure competition show but with this unique twist.

Who do you see as your competition in the unscripted space?

TNT is positioned as broadcast replacement. The network is sold in the marketplace as, ‘If you can’t or don’t want to or for whatever reason aren’t going to put your ad dollars in a broadcast show, then why not put it into TNT shows?’ I don’t use the word ‘competing’ because I don’t view this as a zero sum game. I think people overstate that. If you’re trying to look at TNT’s programming and say what space are they trying to live in, what kind of programming is this comparable to, I would say more broadcast than some of the other cable networks. I would certainly say the shows we look at, are inspired by and are wowed by are – I’ll call them classics – Survivor and The Amazing Race; the big, smart, fun competition shows that are beautifully produced and extraordinarily engaging.

What rights are you looking for?

Obviously the first and most important right is the right to broadcast on the linear network. TV Everywhere [mobile app] is a huge part of what we’re doing at Turner and a larger part of the Time-Warner initiative so I don’t get into that part of the deal making but the ability to express these shows in a TV Everywhere network is vital to us as well. Whether we own international or not is sort of secondary to us; although we have a great and growing international division, in the future we will certainly take more on in-house but we don’t make that a deal breaker per se.

How do you see the percentage of original programming versus off-network programming changing in the future?

I’m uncomfortable putting a number against it. I can only say that over the next five to six years it’s going to be a significant ramp up. I’m not being coy with you, but we don’t like to get in to actual percentages. I’m very comfortable saying there’s going to be a significant increase in the amount of original programming as a percentage of primetime viewing over the next five to six years.

What’s the make-up between male and female?

On TNT we target a 25-54 demo. It’s interesting; mid-week with our [acquired] procedurals it’s probably two-thirds female and one-third male although that shifts from show to show. Some shows are more balanced and on the weekends we’re much more dual and a little bit younger.

TBS is an 18 to 49 network and it’s much more dual. It’s more 50-50 and it’s about 10 years younger than TNT.

Can you tell me about the horse racing show Rivals that you have in development?

That’s the third space we’re targeting – it’s probably one of the hardest targets to hit and that’s the docusoap. We would love to put an unscripted docusoap behind Dallas. Rivals is a show that we like but we’re also developing two or three others in that space and I do think that’s an area we’re going to explore in addition to adventure competition and crime and investigation. I do think you’ll see us go into that docusoap space. It’s so all about the characters so we’re doing casting reels and explorations on a number of different areas.

Rivals is very much in play with us. We have not yet decided to order it because there are a few other shows that we’re looking at in that space and we’ll make that decision before the end of the year.

In regards to American Troubadours, what’s the interest in the singing or music programs?

On a personal level I love music competition. The concern and the challenge is how do you do it in a way that breaks out? There are just so many music competition shows. The thing that we liked about American Troubadours is Nigel [Lythgoe] is a fantastic producer and we like the notion of bands. That’s not been done. The trick is how do you do it in a way that the personalities of those bands emerge?

That show is still very much in play with us. We have not yet made a decision about it and to be honest we’re letting the summer play out with all the other originals we have on and then, as is usual for us, at the end of August and beginning of September we’ll start looking at a few more shows to order for 2013 and a few more shows to pilot.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.