Kevin Reilly, president of TBS and TNT and chief creative officer for Turner Entertainment, has taken one career and turned it into five, each having its own distinct chapter. And each has been more exciting than the one that came before it.
“Three years in and this has been three of the most fun years of my career,” said Reilly, who is being honored with a Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award at NATPE 2018 in Miami.
That’s saying quite a bit, considering Reilly’s resume. His first big job was as president of Brillstein-Grey Entertainment (now Brillstein Entertainment Partners), where he helped shepherd the pilot of David Chase’s landmark series, The Sopranos, through development and on to HBO. As everyone knows today, that show heralded a new era of television, but prior to its launch, Reilly was confident.
15th Annual NATPE Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Awards
Perhaps that early confidence helped Reilly refine his gut instinct and trust that his own personal taste was his best gauge of success: “I always believed as a programmer that you just needed to put on something that you yourself wanted to watch. I watched every episode of The Sopranos, I was an Office addict,” he said, referring to one of his later charges.
The Sopranos went on to win two Emmys as best drama series and was nominated in that category every year the series was on television. Moreover, many critics still name it television’s best show ever.
Helped FX Get on the Map
After Brillstein-Grey, Reilly worked for Peter Liguori as president of entertainment at FX from 2000 to 2003. While there, he again was the driving force behind an innovative new program: The Shield, created and executive produced by Shawn Ryan and starring Michael Chiklis. Chiklis became the first actor to win the Emmy for best actor from a basic-cable drama and, perhaps more important, The Shield put FX on the map.
At FX, Reilly also developed Denis Leary’s Rescue Me and Ryan Murphy’s Nip/Tuck. Murphy would eventually become one of Twentieth Century Fox Television’s most important and prolific producers with series such as American Crime Story and American Horror Story on FX, and Glee, which Reilly also developed once he got to Fox.
But before he was to run Fox, Reilly served as NBC’s president of entertainment from 2004 to 2007. While at NBC, he launched two comedies whose stature has only grown as the years have passed: The Office, adapted from Ricky Gervais’ more cynical BBC original, and 30 Rock, created, executive produced and starring Tina Fey, who was then an untested sitcom writer after a successful run as head writer at NBC’s storied Saturday Night Live.
While at NBC, Reilly also developed and launched such shows as Heroes, starring This Is Us’s Milo Ventimiglia; Jason Katims’ Friday Night Lights; and long-lived reality series The Biggest Loser.
In 2007, Reilly rejoined Liguori at 21st Century Fox and the Fox Broadcast Network as chairman of entertainment. While at Fox, Reilly oversaw much of the run of American Idol, the gargantuan ratings of which made Fox the No. 1 broadcast network for the entirety of Reilly’s stay there.
But Idol wasn’t all of it. That show’s strong ratings allowed Fox to launch Murphy’s Glee, which was another game changer in primetime series television, proving that viewers had an appetite for musical series. Glee would win Golden Globes, the Peabody and Emmys — it was nominated for 19 Emmys in the first year it was eligible, winning four.
At Fox, Reilly also oversaw the development of such series as Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, Sleepy Hollow, The Mindy Project, The Following and Empire, which premiered after Reilly departed and was immediately a smash hit.
In 2014, Reilly was named to his current position: president of TBS and TNT and chief creative officer for Turner Entertainment.
On the eve of an important premiere for TNT — limited series The Alienist starring movie stars Daniel Bruhl and Dakota Fanning — Reilly was bullish about his cable networks and the TV business in general.
Setting the Bar High at Turner
“When I came in to TNT and TBS, which were top cable networks, I saw a huge upside and opportunity to go in and set the bar higher for the kind of talent we wanted to be in business with,” he said. “I knew we had nowhere to go but up on that. And we’ve way over-performed. When I started, nobody wanted to come in and now we’ve got a nonstop flow of talent coming through our doors.”
That Reilly has leveled up the brands of both networks is clear in their programming selections. On TBS, that includes such programs as Wyatt Cenac’s People of Earth, Search Party, Rashida Jones’ Angie Tribeca and the constantly nominated Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. On TNT, that includes Animal Kingdom, starring Ellen Barkin; Good Behavior, starring Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery; Claws, with Niecy Nash; and now The Alienist.
To launch these shows, Reilly hasn’t been afraid to throw away the cable TV rulebook and try tactics that streaming platforms have made popular, such as launching entire seasons of shows all at once and letting the audience binge-watch them.
“When I got here, streaming and time-shifting were already picking up a lot of steam. I had a very aggressive view about where I thought the TV universe was headed in terms of on-demand. One of the reasons I came to Turner was that there was not a denial about that,” Reilly said. “You have to have a vibrancy in your own product and offer something that people want to talk about on social media and consume on other platforms. Now we have programs and personalities where that’s happening.”