For Michael Wright, the road to being a TV executive began when his acting pursuits hit a dead end. Like CBS chief Leslie Moonves, whose management style Wright studied during eight years at CBS, the aspiring actor switched to a day job when he realized he wouldn't make it as a movie star.
“I was a good actor but not great, OK looking but not Hollywood good-looking, and my uncle wasn't a studio head,” says the TNT/TBS senior VP of original programming. “I'd have these auditions in L.A. and see the producers and say, 'I want to be that guy.'”
The Sacramento, Calif., native started acting at age 7 after winning a contest to star in a production of Oliver. He played in bands throughout high school and earned $5 an hour as a janitor in local theater. He acted in local plays at night, before graduating a year early to pursue a theater degree at UCLA.
A “mediocre” actor
Wright's college acquaintances included Tim Robbins, with whom he performed in the offbeat stage troupe The Actors' Gang. Wright worked in theater in Houston for a couple of years after graduation, auditioning for film and TV roles until, one day, he saw his prospects in a new light.
“I had this revelation that I was really mediocre,” Wright says. “It was a wonderful moment of self-discovery.”
Wright moved back to Los Angeles and took a job in CAA's training program, working as a talent- and TV-packaging agent and learning from mentors Kevin Huvane and Bruce Vinokur.
He then took a job at CBS—one of his clients—as a director-level executive in the miniseries and movie department, working on such projects as The Long Road Home, starring Jack Lemmon, and a live production of On Golden Pond.
Wright stayed at CBS for eight years, learning film and television production from the man he calls the “smartest guy in television,” Moonves. One key lesson Wright learned: Always put the creative people first.
“Reach out to people who know how to write, produce, direct,” he says. “Create an environment where you tell them what it is you want but you don't tell them how to make it. You give people the room to do what they do, and you get good results.”
That was Wright's pitch to TNT/TBS Executive VP/COO Steve Koonin, who offered him the opportunity to head original programming for the Turner entertainment cable channels in 1998. Wright joined a team whose members, he says, had mastered the art of supporting each other while also giving each other enough space to be creative.
He says he brought that mentality to one of his first major tasks at Turner, expanding TNT's originals—then five or six movies a year—to include several series. That helped him forge a relationship with Greer Shephard and Mike Robin, who went on to create TNT's hit drama The Closer, which returns for its second season this week.
Wright calls The Closer one of his proudest accomplishments, for being a smart show that also maintains the provocative edge people expect from cable.
“There's something slightly subversive; it's a smart, engaging procedural, but the storytelling keeps you guessing,” he says. “You can make programming that's commercially entertaining and smart; that's the target we're aiming for all the time.”
Koonin says Wright consistently hits that sweet spot: “Michael is a highly creative and innovative executive who has channeled those qualities toward making some of the best and most compelling productions on television.”
Wright hopes this summer brings more compelling programs—and hits. EMT drama Saveddebuts this week on TNT, and the Stephen King limited series Nightmares and Dreamscapes, which Wright calls “hour-long gems” based on the novelist's short stories, debuts on TNT next month.
Over at TBS, Wright and his team are crafting sketch comedies and scripted sitcoms, such as My Boys and 10 Items or Less, to target the young, smart, female-skewing audience that also enjoys the network's acquired comedies like Seinfeld and Sex and the City. As always, Wright seeks out shows that push the envelope.
“Every year, you take the programming a little [further] down the road,” he says. “It's a high-wire act. You want to stay relevant but evolve.”