Kevin Reilly rarely spoke publicly during his first year as president of TNT and TBS and as chief creative officer of Turner Entertainment. "I didn't have much to say," he said.
But that all changed today at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif., as Reilly was finally ready to lay out his bold plans for transforming the two cable networks—and potentially, TV advertising—over the next three years. "It's a total reinvention of two of cable's most successful brands," he said. "It's the beginning of a new way of looking at cable television."
And his biggest move of all is TNT's plan to reduce the ad load on its three new drama series this year by more than half. "TV is the best advertising delivery mechanism ever invented. It's unparalleled for building brands and moving consumers, but we have overstuffed the bird" and diluted the effectiveness of ads, said Reilly.
To that end, Reilly said the network has "just begun negotiations" to add eight to 10 minutes of additional program time per hour on the new dramas premiering this year. "This is an opportunity we're putting out to the industry to embrace change and move the needle," he said. "We're going to reduce the ad load in those hours by over 50 percent." It echoes a recent announcement from Turner's truTV, which also plans to drop up to nine minutes of ads each hour this fall.
Fewer, more effective ads are essential to "create a better viewing experience," Reilly said.
"In a perfect world, there is a far reduced [ad] load," he added. "Online, advertising agencies and clients make investments in short, quick net ads that are native to their environment. They're treated as content, and they're very effective. And yet we have this separation of this pristine commercial that's separated from the product."
He proposed working closely with creative talent to make commercials that appeal to viewers of a particular show. In doing so, he said, "we can get out of this cluttered environment where you're waiting for your content in between commercials."
(Reilly has never been afraid of making big proclamations at TCA. Two years ago, during his last appearance here as head of Fox, he infamously declared the death of pilot season. Four months later, he stepped down.)
"Improving the consumer experience" via reduced ad load and creating "a new business paradigm" with advertisers are two of the four tent poles Reilly shared that will "define what a TV network is in the years to come." The other two: premium original content and investment in growth.
Addressing TNT and TBS's original content, Reilly said both networks had "lots of room for improvement on brand affinity. ... To be a success today, you've got to be part of the cultural conversation and make some noise."
On TBS, he is trying to "build a bridge between what is the current TBS and Adult Swim," another Turner channel that has a well-defined comedy brand. To that end, the network is debuting seven new comedies, including the very funny Angie Tribeca.
Meanwhile, TNT will have "bolder, more cinematic fare—series that are less by the book," said Reilly in announcing a major departure from TNT's staples like Rizzoli & Isles, Major Crimes and The Closer. He'll be premiering four shows later this year, two shows that were picked up from pilots (Animal Kingdom and Good Behavior) and two that he ordered straight to series (The Alienist and Tales From the Crypt, a horror block from M. Night Shyamalan).
Despite these "muscular" new dramas, Reilly said there is still room on TNT's schedule for Major Crimes and The Librarians. "I'm happy to have these shows on the air for years," he said. However, Rizzoli & Isles will end after its upcoming seventh season. "It felt like it was time. Everybody felt good about that," Reilly said.
"It's going to take time for us to earn our stripes; it's not going to happen overnight," said Reilly, who added that the transition will take three years to complete. "We're sprinting, but it is a marathon. Three years from now, TBS and TNT will be radically different businesses than they are today.
"It's going to be a hairy couple of years in the business in general," said Reilly, but his goal is to keep TNT and TBS an essential part of the industry's evolution.