Michael Wright Leaves TNT With His Legacy Very Much Intact

Michael Wright - TNT Upfront (FT)

After a two-month search, Turner Broadcasting has finally found a replacement for Michael Wright, the former President and Head of Programming for TNT and TBS, who departed earlier this year for a job at Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studios.

That replacement is none other than Kevin Reilly, the former Chairman of Entertainment of Fox Broadcasting Company, who will take up post as President of TNT and TBS later this year. Almost everyone agrees that Reilly, who at one time was President of Entertainment of FX, is a worthy successor to Wright, but he nevertheless has big shoes to fill.

Michael Wright was an important figure for Turner. He joined the company in 2002 as Head of TV Movies and Miniseries and a couple of years later, as TNT was looking to branch out into fully fledged scripted originals, he was tapped to lead the effort.

Michael WrightIt was for that reason that when it was announced that he was to exit his post at Turner that the news articles (and a few premature career obituaries) from the Hollywood trades hailed him as the executive who had defined the scripted brand for the company’s top two cable networks (though arguably TNT has a stronger brand than TBS).

In truth, Wright had a much harder task than merely establishing a scripted brand for TNT when he took on the expanded role in 2004. After all, he was not starting fresh and forging a path into scripted originals, but learning from the mistakes of the past and attempting a push into scripted originals for a second time.

Though the few execs remaining at Turner from the pre-Wright days would like to forget the story (I was told to “move on” when asking questions about this a couple of years ago), TNT did have something of a false start when it came to entering the scripted space in the late 1990s/early 2000s.

In 1997/1998, the network, then under the stewardship of Brad Siegel, quietly entered scripted when they picked up the 22 episode fifth and final season of the Warner Bros produced science-fiction series Babylon 5, which was without a home (and unlikely to get produced) when PTEN closed its doors.

Some Turner insiders have disputed this as their “entry point” into the scripted game, as picking up the final season “made sense” as they has already acquired re-run rights to the show. What isn’t disputed, however, is that they commissioned a series of TV movies based on the series and then firmly entered the originals game when they green-lit a spin-off titled Crusade in early 1998.

At the same time, the network also greenlit production on a Witchblade series from Oliver Stone. Both shows were from respected creators, and at the time the greenlights were considered strong indicators of TNT’s level of commitment to scripted originals. That commitment, however, had more or less disappeared within 18 months.

CrusadeMyriad problems began to emerge as production got underway on Crusade, with (often conflicting) input from the network’s LA and Atlanta bases, resulting in some fairly egregious network notes, standoffs between execs and creatives, a TCA panel being pulled at the last minute, and, finally, a pre-broadcast cancellation. [For a more in depth look at the Crusade issue, see here].

Some missteps, surely limited to the network’s first original show? Unfortunately not, as Oliver Stone and his team would soon discover. Similar problems crept up on the Witchblade series, which resulted in Oliver Stone exiting the project before production began due to creative issues with the network. That said, the series did finally make it to air in 2001 and aired two seasons before being abruptly cancelled.

The teams behind the shows were understandably scarred by the experience, as was TNT who, instead of delivering their first two hit originals, had been left with the reputation that they were not remotely friendly to creatives (the same unenviable position AMC has found itself in over the past few years).

There was a third original series, Bull in 2000, which also failed – airing only half of its episodes. A result of these high profile failures was that after Witchblade went off air in 2002, TNT steered clear of scripted, with the exception of movies and minis, until 2004, when Wright was named Senior Vice-President of Original Programming.

It was with that baggage and 100% failure rate that Michael Wright set out to create a scripted brand for the network, which is never an easy task. In a bid to avoid the issues of the past, Wright ensured that he and his team were the singular point of contacts at the network for the writers and producers they worked with.

The first project that got through development and made it to air was the Kyra Sedgwick fronted The Closer, a ratings hit which would air 7 seasons and spawn a successful spin-off in the Mary McDonnell fronted Major Crimes – which now holds its predecessor’s former position as TNT’s flagship series.

The Closer S5 (Gallery)In the years that followed there was the occasional hiccup, such as Raising The Bar and Memphis Beat, but the launch of The Closer had largely done what it was supposed to – define the brand – and in time the network found hits in such efforts as Rizzoli & Isles, Leverage and Perception, living up to the tagline “We Know Drama”.

Under Michael Wright’s tenure, the network shook of its former reputation as a place that was not welcoming (and according to one creator “downright hostile”) to writers and attracted heady auspices such as David E. Kelley, Steven Spielberg, Frank Darabont and NCIS: Los Angeles showrunner Shane Brennan.

There was also an expansion from simple procedural fare, where the network had seen success, to more comedic series (Men Of A Certain Age), genre shows (Falling Skies and The Last Ship), and the network even took in a former broadcast show with a top cast (Southland). Also of note is the revival of Dallas, which brought back much of the original cast.

All of those moves, which also included the creation of a genre block on Sunday nights and the introduction of new tagline “Boom”, led to Summer 2014 being TNT’s highest rated in more than five years – with a number of the top rated scripted summer series across cable being TNT originals developed under Wright (Major Crimes, Rizzoli & Isles and The Last Ship).

Wright was, of course, rewarded for his successes over the years with several promotions, one of which saw him take responsibility for TBS – which focuses on comedy efforts. In that dual role, he was key in securing Conan, as well as new seasons of broadcast series Cougar Town and American Dad for the network, whilst also developing TBS’ hit original comedy Sullivan & Son.

There’s no denying that Michael Wright’s record at Turner from 2004 onward is impressive, but only when it’s weighed against the earlier failures at TNT that his true worth to the company becomes apparent. From that false start, Wright, known for being warm with creatives, defined the scripted brand for TNT and brought them their biggest hits. As such, he leaves the company with his legacy very much intact. What remains to be seen, however, is what Kevin Reilly will do with it.