When FX was venturing into the world of quality scripted television two decades ago, our management team set our sights on overtaking the leaders as quickly as possible. Qualitatively, the unquestioned leader at the time was HBO, with THE SOPRANOS at the height of its popularity and influence. But as a pay cable channel, HBO economics were in a different league. In basic cable, FX’s chief rival was TNT, which led its class in total viewers and, more significantly, ad revenue.
When THE SHIELD proved that basic cable could produce high-rated and highly acclaimed dramas, TNT entered the business itself in a dramatic way, unveiling the tag line “We Know Drama” and populating its schedule with populist fare deliberately designed to hit the widest possible range of demographics with content far less objectionable than the FX shows were designed to be.
Its most successful venture of that era was THE CLOSER, which featured Kyra Sedgwick as an attractive, disarming Atlanta-bred CIA interrogator working her magic on the Los Angeles crime scene. Her Brenda Leigh Johnson was the yin to Vic Mackey’s yang, coercive and syrupy in contrast to his vigilante violence. And while it skewed old, it regularly got millions more viewers than THE SHIELD did. It ran seven seasons, as did THE SHIELD, and then was followed by a spin-off, MAJOR CRIMES, that ran another six. It was successfully syndicated and had a decent rerun performance, which THE SHIELD never did, and eventually was the bane of FX executives’ lives. For while it paled in creative legacy, it made money for Warner Brothers, and Fox management would regularly chastise our team with those realities. Because the bottom line was often the bottom line.
Whenever shows like this, as well as the likes of RIZZOLI AND ISLES and FRANKLIN AND BASH, would generate high ratings and some of the weaker FX efforts like DIRT and THE RICHES did not, my management would rant violently about how it was impossible that Nielsen wasn’t being paid by Turner to release bigger numbers and I was frequently urged to go down to Nielsen headquarters in Florida and demand an investigation. A few less grounded underlings even suggested I consider torching the place. John Landgraf in particular would be aghast at how TNT could claim to “know drama” with shows as homogenized as theirs were.
As I’ve written previously, I simply couldn’t bring myself to believe any of that was true, because if it was it meant that when FX did do well by Nielsen standards those ratings would be, by definition, equally erroneous. This impasse helped lay the ground for what, in hindsight, was a premature parting. For me, their drama caused my trauma.
Over the next decade, TNT drama evolved under the leadership of Kevin Reilly, who was one of the original FX architects. TNT dramas became more daring. Shows like FALLING SKIES, CLAWSand ANIMAL KINGDOM received more critical recognition and each had appreciable success. One of the key lieutenants for Reilly was Brett Weitz, an impassioned veteran of Fox companies himself. who eventually rose to running the Turner networks after Reilly’s ascension to and subsequent dismissal from head of all the Warner Media networks, including HBO Max.
During the tumultuous AT&T era Weitz attempted to reignite each of the linear networks. TBS, which had evolved into a comedy destination, attempted ambitious series like SEARCH PARTY and Tracy Morgan’s THE LAST O.G. truTV found success in the MTV/Comedy Central semi-scripted world with the likes of IMPRACTICAL JOKERS. But none of them were even close to the high watermarks the HBO series found, particularly the recent bumper crop of award winners such as SUCCESSION. And at other companies, moves were already underway to streamline portfolios and avoid internal cannibalization. At NBCU the USA Network, which had emerged as a direct competitor to TNT with its “blue sky” dramas such as WHITE COLLAR, MONKand Meghan Markle’s career-defining SUITS, had devolved into a hodgepodge of unscripted series like CHRISTY KNOWS BEST and, when NBC Sports Network folded last New Year’s Day, a destination for Olympics and British soccer.
So it was unfortunate, but inevitable, that when David Zaslav and Discovery took stewardship of Warner Media last month with the mandate of cutting costs and the legacy of building his empire with unscripted content, something had to go. HBO/HBO Max has been on a roll, with Casey Bloys emerging as a leader. And longtime Zaslav network honcho Kathleen Finch got the nod as head of all linear networks as soon as he took the reins. Yesterday Weitz, along with kids’ network chief Tom Ascheim, were shown the door. For all intents and purposes, the days of scripted television on Turner networks ended with his dismissal.
I honestly hate reading when people lose their jobs, regardless of how fait a’accompli the news would be. I have yet to meet Weitz, and I was all but gone by the time he arrived at Turner. But he championed his shows and supported his talent, including plenty of people I still call friends, or at least ones I still wish were. I suspect when this news went public, it was a bit of trauma for him.
And whatever my experience with Landgraf was, I also know him well enough to know that he’s a more than decent human being who is driven by battles but respects those who compete with his degree of dedication and passion. So I really don’t think I’m going out on a limb that I suspect that one of the first calls or texts of support and encouragement Weitz received yesterday was from John. (I could use a couple of my own these days).
Whatever does become of the Turner networks, let it never be forgotten that there wouldn’t be a competitive streaming world had they not proven that FX wasn’t a fluke and that you didn’t need a pure pay ecosystem to effectively counter broadcasters.
You sure did know drama, TNT. Good luck, Brett.
Until next time…