How TBS Landed on the ‘Cutting Edge’ of Cable Comedy

Network chief Kevin Reilly is “back to his sweet spot, which is really culturally progressive programming,” expert says

Last Updated: July 7, 2016 @ 2:51 PM

Kevin Reilly took over as head of TBS just under two years ago and has quickly turned the network into a major cable comedy player.

The network recently launched the second season of the Steve and Nancy Carell-produced comedy series “Angie Tribeca,” as well as the plane-crash comedy “Wrecked.” Earlier this year, former “Daily Show” correspondents Samantha Bee and Jason Jones joined TBS with their own high-profile shows, “Full Frontal” and “The Detour.”

“We’re in a really cool building cycle as well as repositioning people’s perception of what the network is,” Brett Weitz, TBS’ executive vice president of original programming, told TheWrap.

While the shows are not ratings powerhouses in the traditional sense, they have all put up impressive numbers in multi-platform viewing. “Angie Tribeca,” for example, is averaging 4.5 million viewers per episode across different platforms.

“Full Frontal” has also found a strong foothold in the competitive late-night space. Bee’s coverage of the 2016 election and the mass shooting at the Orlando nightclub Pulse has helped drive her to 3.4 million viewers per episode across multiple platforms.

“It’s pretty clear that they used to be a very old-fashioned, conventional, almost backward-looking channel,” Tom Nunan, a lecturer at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and former UPN president, told TheWrap. “Now they’re on the cutting edge and actually qualify as a cable comedy network. I’m impressed by what they’ve done.”

“We joke about, but I think people still think of us as the Tyler Perry network or all we have on is ‘Big Bang Theory,'” Weitz said. “I think where once we were focused on that type of acquired content, we now really want to make our bones in the original space.”

Indeed, Perry’s multi-camera sitcoms “House of Payne” and “Meet the Browns” used to dominate the network’s originals slate, while reruns of shows like “Big Bang Theory” and “Seinfeld” comprised the rest of their programming. Conan O’Brien joining the network in 2010 with his talk show helped a bit, but TBS still suffered with short-lived fare like “Clipped,” “The Pete Holmes Show,” and “Ground Floor.”

But now, the network is branching out with content specifically targeted for a young audience. Later this year, Alia Shawkat will debut “Search Party” on TBS and Wyatt Cenac, another “Daily Show” alum, is set to star in “People of Earth.”

“Millennials are so in tune to who’s producing content,” Weitz said. “People like Jack Black and Seth Rogen, they’ve earned respect and people are willing to check it out and understand what that brand of humor is most likely going to be.”

But is TBS relying too heavily on Comedy Central talent? After all, Jones, Bee and Cenac were all on “The Daily Show” in recent years, and both the Carells got their starts there.

“If somebody was being picky, you could say they’re leaning a little heavy on Comedy Central’s stars,” Nunan said. “But stars are stars and it doesn’t really matter what their genesis is.”

Cable networks “are all competing for that same super-educated, 18-34 audience,” he continued. “The way to get those folks is to be as provocative and newsworthy as possible. I don’t think they’re exclusively working off the Comedy Central playbook. They’re saying ‘Our audience can handle a lot more single-camera, edgy comedy then we’ve done in the past.'”

And when it comes to edgy comedy, you have to mention Super Deluxe, the online comedy video network that Turner Entertainment launched in early June.

They have partnered with Academy Award winner Stephen Gaghan as an ongoing executive producer, and signed a development and production agreement with Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim and Dave Kneebone, the minds behind the surreal Adult Swim series “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!”

Reilly, who wears several hats as president of TBS, TNT, and chief creative officer for Turner Entertainment, says the platform will serve as a proving ground of sorts for content that could one day end up on TBS.

“It’s part of our business plan,” Reilly told TheWrap during the launch. “It’s not the primary function [of Super Deluxe], but we certainly anticipate certain content and creators will find their way to the linear channel…Adult Swim launched off the back of one hour of programming. I can see a devoted cult following popping up for this.”

Reilly remained tight-lipped about what content currently on Super Deluxe could make it to the network, but he did tout the digital space for its ability to develop new content.

“There’s an awful lot of consumer activity today in the social channels, particularly for comedy,” he said. “I also think it’s where the next generation of creators will come out of who want to make something and have it be seen and not have it be stuck in development.”

And if it’s one thing Reilly knows, it’s development. Over the course of his career, he has shepherded shows like “The Sopranos,” “The Shield,” “30 Rock,” “The Office,” and “Empire” to name just a few. That magic touch continues to work at TBS.

“I think he’s back to his sweet spot, which is really culturally progressive programming,” Nunan said. “That’s a vision that goes beyond one piece of talent.”