After Honing TBS’ Comedic Voice, WarnerMedia Risks Damaging the Brand by Adding Dramas

This comes as rival Disney does the opposite and stresses the importance of brands

Kevin Reilly says blurring TBS and his other networks' brands will make them "stronger." Getty Images
Headshot of Jason Lynch

As much as Disney and AT&T’s WarnerMedia wouldn’t want to admit it, they have a lot in common.

Both entertainment companies just went through massive mergers (Disney and Fox; AT&T and Time Warner), are in the midst of creating new streaming services to take on Netflix (each rolling out within the next year) that will draw on the assets of their respective companies, and within a 24-hour period, both pitched advertisers on their respective visions during their upfront presentations.

But when it comes to how each company views their brands, their differences become apparent.

One day after Disney stressed the growing importance of its brands during Tuesday afternoon’s event, WarnerMedia unveiled plans at its own presentation Wednesday morning to begin blurring the branding of its own biggest networks, a risky move that could undo years of effort to craft TBS’ comedy brand. And that’s because TBS will begin airing original dramas next year, starting with Snowpiercer, which is based on the 2013 movie.

“We’re in the midst of a transformation at WarnerMedia,” explained Kevin Reilly, president of TBS and TNT and chief creative officer, WarnerMedia direct-to-consumer, during his company’s event Wednesday morning. “Part of this transformation is how we think about networks. We’re going to be more flexible in our programming strategy and go where the audience is and use every programming tool and asset we have to maximize delivery and connection.”

He added, “TBS, TNT and truTV are stronger if we’re less bound by a single brand position or genre.”

Reilly said he’ll use March Madness and its audience of 125 million, including next year’s NCAA Men’s Championship Game, to help launch Snowpiercer next spring, the same approach that boosted TBS comedy The Last O.G. two years ago.

But dramas won’t be the only genre suddenly popping up on TBS. The network will simulcast the upcoming TNT series Chasing the Cure Live, which host Ann Curry called “an effort to unleash the power of crowdsourcing” and help people who are suffering from undiagnosed or misdiagnosed medical mysteries.

TBS’ abrupt shift into other genres threatens to tarnish the brand that the network has been cultivating since it began focusing on the comedy in 2003. While the network rolled out the “Very funny” slogan a year later, in truth, the network was anything but funny for many years.

That changed with Conan O’Brien’s arrival in 2010 and series like Cougar Town, which relocated to TBS in 2013 after ABC canceled it. But it wasn’t until Reilly arrived in 2014 that the network really found its comedic voice, with programs like Full Frontal With Samantha Bee and edgy series Angie Tribeca, Search Party, The Last O.G. and The Detour. The new Nasim Pedrad comedy Chad, which TBS picked up today, seems very much in line with that sensibility as well.

The decision to disrupt and dilute that comedic DNA doesn’t seem to make sense. After all, cable networks don’t try to be all things to all people the way that streaming services like Netflix do—or even broadcasters these days. So why should a comedy network suddenly branch into other genres?

Reilly acknowledged that TBS is “a top five network” on cable, but if viewers who expect to find comedy on the network instead tune-in and discover new laugh-free content, they may go elsewhere for their comedy needs. (Which could be great news for Comedy Central and IFC.)

More than a dozen networks learned that the hard way in recent years. After trying to replicate AMC and FX’s success in the premium scripted series by suddenly moving into that space, networks like Discovery, E!, A&E and more have either pulled out of scripted entirely or significantly curtailed their efforts there.

TBS declined to elaborate on plans for the network’s new strategy beyond Reilly’s comments, only saying it will share more details later.

Even more puzzling than the decision to move Snowpiecer from TNT to TBS is the fact that WarnerMedia didn’t earmark the show for its new streaming service, given that the company has yet to officially announce a single original series that will air on the platform, and did not elaborate on its content plans for advertisers today. But as part of the streaming service, the series could help drive viewers to a WarnerMedia platform without alienating the ones that are already there.

WarnerMedia’s strange moves today are in stark contrast to Disney, which took great effort to treat its networks as distinct brands within its ecosystem during Tuesday’s upfront.

“In this era of unbelievable choice, brands matter more than ever. And we have the best,” Kevin Mayer, Disney’s chairman of direct-to-consumer and international, said at the event.

Earlier that day, during Disney’s upfront press conference, FX Networks chairman John Landgraf echoed those comments by sharing an insight that both he and Disney CEO Bob Iger believe: “Brands are going to be more valuable, not less valuable, in the future.”

WarnerMedia seems to be taking the opposite approach. By next year’s upfront, we should have a better sense of which company made the right call.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.