[06/08/12 - 10:38 AM]
Interview: TNT, TBS & TCM President, Head of Programming Michael Wright
By Jim Halterman (TFC)

With more and more channels on our televisions than ever (and more devices to watch them on), the challenge to get noticed by viewers is a one of the biggest struggles of any broadcaster but Turner is making a big play to become the regular stop this summer for the television audience with returning hits and a slew of ambitious new comedic and drama series.

Michael Wright, who, with a decade at Turner under his belt, was recently upped to President, Head of Programming for TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies (TCM), has both scripted and unscripted projects on his busy plate and, during a chat prior to upfronts with our Jim Halterman, revealed his thoughts on some of their offerings in the coming months.

Wright shed light on the recent acquisition of "Cougar Town," launching the reboot of the iconic series "Dallas" (June 13), how the upcoming "Major Crimes" (August 13) isn't intended to fill the shoes of the soon-departing "The Closer," diving into the unscripted space and the surprising place you'd find him if he wasn't working in television.

Jim Halterman: First of all, congratulations on your new title. What does that change for you in your day-by-day?

Michael Wright: My letterhead. [laughs] No, honestly it doesn't really change much. It really, obviously, is a very nice thing that Turner did for me. I think more of an affirmation of how we've already all been working together anyway the last couple of years, so it doesn't really change the day-to-day. It's just a really cool thing that Steve Koonin and Phil Kent made happen so you take it in and you're super happy about it and you move right on.

JH: The 'Cougar Town' pick-up was just announced. What's the mandate for a show to be picked up by Turner and why was 'Cougar Town' such a good property for you to invest in?

MW: I think the circumstances made it the right pick up for us. I think it's an affirmation of strategy that's behind a lot of what is going on at both TNT and TBS. Both networks are dramatically expanding the presence of originals on the network. Both networks are moving to a year-round schedule. It's hard not to put one or two original series on a network and find success. When your growing somewhat exponentially, you have to widen you net and you have to look everywhere, under every rock and behind every corner and look for programming that is on brand and has a potentially loyal viewer base.

In the case of 'Cougar Town,' as we're expanding the presence of originals on TV, actually we have couple of great ones coming this summer, both 'Men at Work' (premieres May 24) and 'Sullivan and Son' (July) premiere this summer. I'm very enthused about both but as we get to next year the plan is to grow beyond that. We like to plan for success; you also have to plan for not everything working out, so when 'Cougar Town' became available, it was a series of phone calls between us and the folks at ABC, and personally, my first response was, 'I'm a huge fan of the show.' I've probably seen two thirds of the episodes since it premiered. I love Bill Lawrence. I love his comedy voice. It's very smart. It's very irreverent. It's very relevant but it's also big-hearted. That's the one thing I love about his writing, both with 'Scrubs' and 'Cougar Town,' I like those people. I want to go hang out in the cul-de-sac and have a glass of wine with them. They make me laugh and they're also fun cool people. That's really consistent with most of the original comedy that we're currently pursuing.

When you see 'Men at Work,' when you see 'Sullivan and Son,' you know they are very different from 'Cougar Town,' obviously, because they reflect the voices of Breckin Meyer and Rob Long and Steve Byrne respectively. But all those shows I would argue and hope the audience feels they represent that same sort of smart, contemporary, relevant but big-hearted comedy. That's the brand that we are pursuing on TNT. It's young, it's fun, it's smart, it's relevant and it's big hearted. And so I think 'Cougar Town' creatively was exactly the right kind of show for us. It makes its own sort of noise and because the show is so specific, it helps us affirm to our viewers and to the media, 'Hey, here's what we're about, here's what we're trying to do.' So it's a creative fit. It's a brand fit. It's a marketing fit. There are a lot of good things for us. The most important of them being, I think it'll work for our audience.

JH: Talk to me about something you mentioned there - if a show doesn't work do you just chalk that up as a failure or is it always a lesson? How do you look at that?

MW: I think that's the paradigm for all programming. I think this is a business [and] sadly there's failure. By that I mean commercial failure not creative failure. I think there's a cynicism sometimes that goes into people talking about this business. Nobody ever develops, writes, orders or programs a show expecting it to fail. You always go into it saying, 'Hey, I really like that show, I think people will love it.' And so, sure, you hopefully learn from your commercial failures just as you learn from your creative failures. You take it in and say what worked, what didn't work and that hopefully informs the next series of decisions that you make. But 'Cougar Town' working or not working and by that I really mean commercially, because I think the great thing about 'Cougar Town' is that I've seen 40 probably of the 61 episodes and the show works. Creatively, they know the show they are making. It's not a show where you're going from pilot to series and of wondering when it will become a series. This is a show where they really know the show they are making. So you can actually make a decision based on a lot more information. You can look at an episode and say 'I love the show they're making. I want to put that on our air.' It's always a crapshoot whether people will watch something or not. I don't care what any researcher or network executive blow hard wants to say, nobody knows. William Goldman, no one knows anything. It's always informed guess working. And so the best thing you can do is have a very clear sense of the kind of show you want to put on your network. A very clear sense of who your audience is and what you think they like, and order interesting programming based on that and hope for the best.

JH: You have such a big summer coming up for TNT especially 'Dallas.' Talk to me about your expectations with that in terms of younger and older viewers because I remember the old show so I go in with one reference but I don't know about younger viewers. What do you think?

MW: I think that anytime you remake or as we like to call this one, a reboot, anytime you program based on a subject, a title or something previously sold, you're naïve if you think that that's going to get you samples past the second or third episode. All it does whether it's the title 'Dallas' or, frankly, Steven Spielberg being the executive producer of 'Falling Skies,' in the case of the title 'Dallas' or Steven's name, these are big entertainment brands that encourage people to sample you. It's meaningful in a 300-channel universe when you're trying to decide what you want to watch and you're looking for a specific kind of experience, which is what typically motivates people to turn on a TV show. They're looking for a specific experience. Well the title 'Dallas' tells you that you're going to have a certain kind of experience just as Steven's name tells you will have a certain kind of experience but all that does is encourage sampling. You're not going to come back with the second, third or fourth viewing if the experience itself isn't as good or better than the promise. Right?

But I think in the case of 'Dallas,' sure that name says to viewers that saw the original, 'okay big, fun, juicy, smart soap opera.' And then, frankly, because somebody in media knows that title and writes about it, it helps them to communicate to new viewers what this show is. Oh well, straight from the old show it's true. 'Dallas' is likely to be a big part smart, intense, emotional, juicy soap. And those two things, the old viewers having had a previous experience [and] the new viewers having a good idea what it's supposed to be, probably helps get you samples. But, again, going back to my argument just from a moment ago, that's not going to help you out past the second or third episode. So for us, when Warner Brothers first came and pitched the show to us, I think our response was the right one, which was wow, great title, that will really get you samples. But holy moly, if you don't get this right, it's just a very risky endeavor because you really are taking on one of the icons. That's not hyperbole, taking on all the icons in television from the past thirty, forty years.

So we've carefully scrutinized this show from pitch to outline, to first draft to shooting the script, to pilot and series order, and what I'm really happy to report is they nailed it. Cynthia Cidre and Michael Robin wrote and directed something, respectively, that's really special. Cynthia did her homework, she went back and for all I know watched every episode and, if not, a whole lot of them, did her homework, really dug in and talked to everybody that she could about what was important to bring forward from the original and what was important to bring new to it. Similarly, Michael Robin has been our go-to guy. He is just a brilliant, wonderful man. He directed 'The Closer' pilot, the 'Rizzoli & Isles' pilot. I hope it's okay that I tell you this. He passed twice. I called him twice saying, 'I need you,' and both times he said no. Then he called back the third time and this is why he's so special. He called back a third time and he goes 'Mike, I know what to do with it,' and that's music to my ears because that's the guy that wasn't just looking for a job. He doesn't need to. When he passed the first two times he was passing because he said, 'I don't know what to bring to this to refresh and renew it.' And he called back the third time and he had real inspiration about how to do it right. Both how to honor the original and the sort of vitamins and minerals that made the original 'Dallas' so wonderful but also how to bring something new to it so that the new audience could discover it and make their own. If we succeed, if it finds an audience and resonates, and I think that will happen, it's because the audience and folks who loved the original will come to and say, 'oh my goodness they're still honoring the original.' Look no further than the fact that Larry [Hagman, JR]and Patrick [Duffy, Bobby] and Linda [Gray, Sue Ellen] are back and are having the time of their lives and they would be the first three to tell you how respectful this production has been of the original. But they will also all three say to you they love the new cast and they love that sort of renewed energy around it.

You've seen it so it's easy to talk about it with you. There is vibrancy to it. It doesn't feel old and stale. I think the main reason for that for me is because as you could imagine I've had this conversation with a few people, when it came down to it we said, 'okay, beyond the recognition of the title and the fact it'll get you a sample, why do it?' Well, good script, great. That's the main reason to do it but also the intense conflict that is part of family/relationship drama is universal and endures. There is nothing more universal or constant than the intensity of emotion around familial conflict. The wars that are waged between brothers and sisters and fathers and sons and husbands and wives, it's just so relevant and so relatable. When you really take a step back, remake or no, it's a well-written drama that mines the conflict that is consistent to all families. If that's done right, that's a pretty good bet. They did it right. If you're a thirty-year old who never saw the original and you tune into the pilot, you're going to say 'Well, who cares about what ever happened before? This is a really cool show. I'm in. I'm interested.' That's what I'm hoping for.

JH: 'The Closer' is such an important part of TNT's history and I feel like, if The Closer hadn't been so huge we might not be talking about all the stuff we're talking about today. What are the expectations for 'Major Crimes?' Are you seeing it at something that will fill the role of 'The Closer' or just continue that success?

MW: No. Nothing can ever replace the commercial success of 'The Closer.' I would point out, and this is a really happy thing to point out, that last year 'The Closer' is actually the third highest rated show. I don't think people had really noticed that or reported it. 'Rizzoli & Isles' and 'Falling Skies' were both higher rated shows than 'The Closer' in 2011. Kyra's decision to leave and the collective decision to move on to 'Major Crimes' happened at exactly the right time. The show has already shown a ratings decline. Other shows in the network were actually drawing slightly larger audiences. And you know what? 'The Closer' is 'The Closer.' I always joke and say, 'I have a nice house because of that show.' I am forever grateful to James Duff, Michael Robin, Greer Shephard and Kyra Sedgwick and everybody else involved in that show because that was our first crack at this and, holy moly, we got a lot lucky and a little bit smart, but I think we had the common sense to learn from what works about that show and try to apply it to what's come after.

So for 'Major Crimes,' no, I don't expect it to be as commercially big as 'The Closer.' I didn't expect 'The Closer' to be as big as it was. I remember when that show premiered I said to Steve Koonin the night before I said, 'God, I'd just love to see a three in front of that rating,' then, oh my goodness, it was a five. So my expectation for 'Major Crimes' is, I expect it to succeed. But my expectation is based on the fact that it has a lot of the same DNA of 'The Closer.' A lot of the production style. The writing... it's still James Duff, who is a gifted, gifted writer who knows how to take a procedural and turn it into a character drama, which is what he did with 'The Closer' and what he's done here. You have the benefit of the characters that have been involved over seven seasons. For the fans, there are some that just won't come back because they watched it for Kyra and bless them but I think there are a great number of viewers beyond them who will come back because they love the world of 'The Closer' and Mary McDonnell [Captain Raydor] is a world-class actress. James Duff and Mike and the team are very, very clear about what this show is and that also helps.

It had a lot of the DNA of 'The Closer' but where 'The Closer' was about getting the confession, this show is about getting the conviction. So they've applied it in a slightly different storytelling paradigm to it that gives them a really clear road map. They're not laundering in the storytelling wilderness; they know what they're making here. Raydor's character is all about fixing some of the mistakes frankly that Brenda made. As we've said, if Brenda was your sort of crazy older sister who takes you on adventures and gets you in trouble, Raydor is mama. She's like my Irish ma. She's sharp. She's experienced. If you work for her, she will have your back six ways to Sunday and nobody gets to wrap your knuckles, oh yeah, except for her because if you screw up, she's going to fix you. So she's different from Brenda. She is her own authoritative, very knowledgeable boss and where Brenda was a genius in getting the confession, Raydor knows the system. She's actually more experienced than Brenda and one of the reveals in the show is that a lot of the confessions that the Major Crimes unit got with Brenda Lee have been thrown out because they didn't hold up. Raydor's all about, 'we are going to get convictions. We're going to do this right'. So it's the same world lumped in character, mostly the same character, however it's slightly different but consistent storytelling paradigm, so I'm very thrilled about it.

JH: Talk to me about moving into unscripted and how will these shows be set apart from the competition.

MW: You know, I don't really focus on our competition. I think TV is more like golf than football. I'm not suiting up and hitting a guy in the chest and trying to knock him out. I'm trying to beat my own score. You know what I'm saying? This counter programming matters and being consistent and true to your audience, out of respect, does it have an impact what other guys are doing? Yes. But if we do our jobs right, if we cultivate a really specific brand, if we cultivate an audience that loves that brand and we create and or acquire content that's specific to that brand, we're going to be just fine. So I always use the football versus golf metaphor. I'm playing against my own score and in that scenario our strategy for unscripted is: A) we want to go year-round and expand our presence of originals. B) To be a drama network and not be in the unscripted space right now is pretty much a sin of omission. Unscripted dramas are here to stay, and when it good, it's great. So you no longer say unscripted is bad. No, because some unscripted shows are kind of cheesy and goofy [and] we're not going to do that. And there are other unscripted dramas that are really great and great storytelling and big characters and for us as a drama network to not be in that space is a mistake. So we're jumping into it wholeheartedly. [C)] Our synergy is to take audiences that are already coming to the network and try to get them into the unscripted space. As an example, we obviously have a great big loyal audience that loves mysteries, crime and mystery on TNT, whether it's 'The Closer,' 'Rizzoli & Isles,' 'Leverage' or 'Franklin & Bash.' So we're going to take that 'Closer'-'Rizzoli' audience and take them to unscripted crime and investigation dramas and hope that we can grab some of those audiences and lead them into a show like 'Boston Blue.'

Similarly on the weekend we've got this really big, fun, popcorn-loving audience that loves big movies like 'Transformers' and 'Independence Day' and 'National Treasure' and loves 'Falling Skies' and 'Leverage.' That's a younger more dual audience than our procedural audience and we hope to take that audience into big cinematic competition shows. So it's about getting into a new space but using the audience you already have to tee that up.

JH: I was at the HRTS luncheon in March and there was talk about the cable model changing, how it's kind of evolving. Do we have an idea what it's changing into or is it just too soon to know that? Or do you just kind of have to go along with the path it's taking?

MW: I think distribution platforms have been changing since we went from the stage to radio, radio to TV, TV broadcast to cable to satellite and now to the digital universe. If you look at the history about our business, the distribution platform is always changing and the rate of change grows exponentially. What doesn't change is the importance of brand and content. The people that have kept their eye on standing for something creatively and creating or acquiring content that's consistent with our brand, they win. Everyone knows that we're venturing into the digital universe. No one is quite certain where we will land. So my strategy and my company's strategy is we're content players. Jeff Bewkes... I love his strategy. Build brands, create or aggregate content that fits those brands, and you'll be just fine. Content has been, is and will remain, king. Distribution platforms change. Content and its appeal to the viewer never does.

JH: I know in the job that you do, there's such a commitment and you've been doing it for a long time but if you were not working in television, what would you be doing? What was like your back up plan?

MW: I'd be running a theater some place. I started acting in the theater when I was seven and then I became a writer and a director and I won't lie I really miss it in my life. I don't miss acting at all but I miss the community of theater people every day of my life. I love people that are doing it where there isn't great money involved. Where there's just a love of storytelling, a love of character and a love of engagement with the audience. I miss it every day of my life and when I'm kicked out of this business, which I will inevitably be as we all are and somebody somewhere goes, 'what happened to that guy Michael Wright?' I hope somebody answers, 'I guarantee you he's working at a theater somewhere super happy.'

  [june 2012]  

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