TNT breaks out its comfort zone this week with the premiere of the six-episode Mob City, which also marks Frank Darabont’s next move in television after his exit from The Walking Dead. The network will air the series over three weeks.
Michael Wright, president of programming for TNT, TBS and TCM, spoke with B&C contributing editor Tim Baysinger about why he wants to encourage binge viewing with Mob City, working with Frank Darabont and what a new series must do to get enough eyeballs in this cluttered marketplace. An edited transcript follows.
This is a break from TNT’s usual brand of procedural shows. Why was this project something you wanted to take on?
We’ve had great success in a specific space doing procedurals and sort of that thing, but we’ve also taken some other shots that have done really well for us, Falling Skies being the most obvious.
The combination of Falling Skies working for us and what is a clear enthusiasm for serialized storytelling and binge watching that’s evolved over the last couple of years on television makes us feel that we can and should continue to evolve the network and bring our audience more shows like Falling Skies, more genre based programming that allows us to feed that audience demand for binge viewing and genre fare and serialized storytelling. But [Mob City] also works well within the context of what’s already on the network.
It’s a programming mistake to put all of your eggs in one programming basket. You don’t want to be the procedural network. As much as we love our procedurals we think it makes a lot of sense to offer your audience a variety of entertainment.
What’s the strategy behind airing the entire six-episode season over three weeks?
We wanted to give it event status, but there was something else that this programming plan allowed us to overcome. We always wanted to premiere the show in December. The areas of opportunity for us happen to be June, July and December. Historically, TNT has often done well with December premieres, but [back then] those were movies and miniseries. The problem with launching a series in December is you’re going to hit that 10-day period between Christmas and New Years where levels go down and there’s preemptions and specials and its awkward. We looked at that and said, “How do we overcome that?”
The third thing we talked about was how do we take the audience’s clear enthusiasm for binge viewing and program to that desire.
It’s a combination of not wanting to be preempted by the holidays, wanting to event-ize the show and wanting to feed the contemporary audience’s clear desire for that binge-watching experience.
Is this a strategy you would look to apply to any future seasons of this show or other new series?
I think it depends on the show. This particular show sets up so nicely for it. The way it is structured is that if, God willing, people watch it and then we get to do more of it, it’s based on John Buntin’s book about a real story. It’s about the battle between the LAPD and the mob and its efforts to infiltrate the city.
That real story took place over many years so in success you could come back with another season in 1948 with a different arc. If that one works, you come back a year later. You could tell the whole story over the course of several seasons and very organically fit in these chapters that have their own beginnings, middles and ends.
What’s the budget like compared to other TNT series?
It’s very comparable to Falling Skies. It is a beautiful-looking six hours of television.
You have mentioned how you had success with airing previous shows out of theatricals. Are you doing the same thing with Mob City?
Yes we are. We’re using movies to lead in to it on all three nights. We just felt that it made more sense. It’s a very film-like TV show in terms of production value and production quality and storytelling. We thought it made sense to use films as a lead in.
Which films are you using?
We’re running Red, Gladiator, The Dark Knight [among others]. We’re still debating that third week.
With so many different channels doing original scripted programming, how does any new show expect to stand out from the clutter?
It is a much more crowded landscape. I think it’s up to the show itself. These days, the show itself has to stand out and it has to be distinctive. It has to feel like something that isn’t on four other channels in 10 other dayparts. I think you start there.
Given Frank Darabont’s public and quick exit from The Walking Dead, what concerns and priorities did you each have about getting into business on another ambitious original cable series?
I didn’t have any concerns. I met with Frank on a couple of occasions; we hit it off right away. We discovered we shared a huge love of different genres and one of them was film noir. He’s had a story like this in his mind.
As far as The Walking Dead goes, I wasn’t there. I don’t have any sense of what went down or how it went down. Frank has been an outstanding partner on this, that’s all I can say. What happened on that show is between Frank and them. It’s none of my business, frankly.
We’ve had a lot of agreement and the occasional disagreement over the show and those disagreements have been handled professionally, with appropriate passion and problem solving.
You want a person with passion. You want a person who will fight for their show. Sometimes I have to be the guy who says, “No, you can’t have that” or “We can’t spend this.” Would you rather have a guy that says, “OK, that’s fine” or one that says, “Come on, we can do this or this or this.” Anytime he’s argued for something, it’s always been in service and making his show better. You need that. To break out of the clutter, you better have people around you who are going to do that.
There are more and more networks popping up. How has the FX/FXX/FXM launch, which very closely mirrors Turner’s strategy with TNT, TBS and TCM, impacted the competitive landscape? Are more entertainment choices for viewers a good thing competitively or does it just make things that much tougher to get viewers’ attention?
I think it depends on the quality of the individual networks. If you’re launching a new network and it’s bringing a new voice or point of view, something that’s not offered someplace else or is not offered as well someplace else, I think it’s a welcome addition.
It is a very crowded landscape.
Since you are building up your original programming slate, how important will theatricals continue to be to Turner’s programming strategy?
I’m a big fan of movies on cable networks, as long as you’re buying the right kind of movie. They need to be on brand. We have a very specific brand with TNT and TBS and there are just certain movies that reflect the brand well. Movies that you can run multiple times because they have evergreen quality advertise well and they’re very efficient.
You have other big-name directors with upcoming projects on the network, from Michael Bay and his Last Ship to Howard Gordon with Legends. Who else is on your wish list?
Julian Fellowes—I think Downton Abbey is beautifully crafted. Vince Gilligan—I famously passed on Breaking Bad, but for all the right reasons. I love Doug Ellin—Entourage was one of my favorite shows on HBO. Still trying to get Chuck Lorre to come do a show for us. J. J. Abrams is somebody we would love to be in business with.