What do ER, Glee, The Shield and The Sopranos have in common? They all owe their existence, at least in part, to Kevin Reilly.
Now head of Turner networks TBS and TNT, Reilly has spent more than two decades shepherding some of the biggest and boldest TV shows to grace the small screen. He helped push FX into the original programming game when it was still airing repeats of COPS, ran two broadcast networks and garnered some much-needed ink and cred for TBS with shows such as Angie Tribeca and Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.
“He has shifted us—and the focus—to having some buzz,” says David Levy, president, Turner Broadcasting, who said the cultural cachet TBS has received “hasn’t been done in many years, almost since Conan came on [in 2010].” Animal Kingdom became the first TNT launch under Reilly’s stewardship this summer.
“Kevin is one of the most gifted, creative executives I’ve had the chance to work with,” says Joe Earley, president of The Jackal Group, who worked with Reilly while he was president of Fox Entertainment.
Nearing his two-year anniversary with Turner, Reilly is just getting started, referring to it as “Chapter 1.”
Reilly has been lauded for the way he works with creatives. In too many typical cases, network executives and showrunners are on opposite sides of a track headed toward a collision. But for Reilly, it’s all about collaboration and remembering it may be your network, but it’s their show.
“Rather than force his [vision] on them, he would work with them and help them unlock their own superpower,” says Earley.
Ryan Murphy has credited Reilly with the creation of Jane Lynch’s tracksuit-wearing Glee antagonist Sue Sylvester.
“If they know you’re going to bat on their behalf and you’re not going to be a fair-weather friend or overload them with a bunch of arbitrary requirements, I’ve found that even the most discerning talent will be collaborative,” says Reilly.
Getting his start in the mid-1990s, Reilly has worked in the industry at a time when the only constant was change. “While we were a fairly consumer-friendly product…with the limited choice, we choreographed how and when you were getting it,” says Reilly of those earlier days. “Now with the technology, really the consumer is in power.”
After getting his start with NBC, where he helped develop some of the network’s most notable shows including ER, Homicide: Life on the Street and Law & Order, Reilly headed up Brad Grey Television. It was there he helped to propel The Sopranos, which gave HBO its reputation as one of the premier non-broadcast networks that was a safe haven for creative original programming.
With The People v. O.J. Simpson, The Americans, American Horror Story and Fargo, FX has become one of the top destinations for prestige television. And while John Landgraf rightly gets much of that credit, it was Reilly who got the cabler off the ground with The Shield and Nip/Tuck. “Programming originals on cable was not a sexy thing at that time; it wasn’t even a thing,” he says. “Nobody thought that a cable show could be a top-rated or top-reviewed show, or move culture.”
Shortly after its debut, The Shield shattered cable records, garnered a Golden Globe for best drama and earned star Michael Chiklis an Emmy. “It became a stake in the ground that a lot of other networks tried to model,” Reilly says.
During his time with NBC, Reilly considered former NBC president Brandon Tartikoff his mentor, and when the opportunity arose to return to his first home, this time to run it as president of entertainment, he couldn’t pass it up. “I would always look down the hall at Brandon Tartikoff and his office when I started my career,” he remembers. “When that office became available it felt like it was too hard to resist.” He left FX in good hands, though; his first and only call to replace himself was to Landgraf. “Half of my team is still there and now they’re upper management.”
Reilly would spend the next decade in broadcast TV, first with NBC and later with Fox. Though Reilly had a brief tenure with NBC, he still gave them The Office, 30 Rock and Friday Night Lights. “That sort of really being the center of the universe was a tremendous platform,” he says. “By the time I had joined up at Fox I was really beginning to feel the contraction in the broadcast universe.”
Reilly’s tenure at Fox might be best remembered for what amounts to his famous last words: “RIP Pilot Season.” But Earley argues that Reilly was simply trying to help Fox keep pace with the current TV landscape. “It wasn’t that he wanted to kill pilot season,” he says. “He wanted to not be constrained by a calendar at a time when originals were going to need to run year-round.” Earley adds that what Reilly has implemented at Turner, from reducing ad loads to Angie Tribeca’s unique distribution, are things he spoke about when they were at Fox.
“For years Kevin has been talking about the need to change the ad model and the need to embrace digital,” he says.
Levy describes getting Reilly on board at Turner as a “long dating process” and Levy is more than happy with the outcome. “He understands a lot of pieces of the puzzle, what makes a network work,” Levy says. He and Reilly speak once a week about the industry, and jokes that it’s usually hard to get him off the phone.
“We end up having, on the calendar, a half-hour phone call; they typically end up being an hour and a half,” Levy says. “I’ve learned to schedule hour-and-a-half meetings.” Not a bad move, given how many memorable half-hours and hours Reilly has helped bring to television.