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Basic Instinct

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By Jack Feuer

Published Oct 1, 2010 9:00 AM


Basic cable is the go-to place for TV dramas these days, and Michael Wright '87, executive vice president and head of programming for Turner cable networks, is a big reason why. From The Closer to Saving Grace, Leverage, Lopez Tonight and Rizzoli & Isles, Wright's pitch-perfect choices have transformed television. This month, he'll do it again when Conan O'Brien comes to TBS.

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Photo by Max S. Gerber.

Q: What's a nice theater major doing in television?

A: I pursued a career in acting well into my late 20s, when I had an epiphany. We were on a 36-state, six-month bus tour doing a production of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge, and one night between Opelika and Mobile, we were sitting in the lounge in back of the bus. A guy on the show, kind of a journeyman actor in his 50s, was talking — endlessly — about how miserable his life was, how his dreams didn't come true, and I had a moment of absolute clarity. I thought, "Oh, man, I'm going to be this guy." I was a good actor, but not great. OK-looking, but not Hollywood handsome. And neither Lew Wasserman nor Mike Ovitz '68 was my uncle. And I decided I didn't want to pursue something I was going to be [only] good at. I wanted to be the guy I auditioned for, because I might not have been a great actor, but I have the ability to recognize talent. And there's a real value in that.

Q: So that led to programming, and now here you are making TV programming history.

Shows and Tell

Find out more about UCLA's heralded theater program and student productions at www.tft.ucla.edu. For more information about Turner Entertainment, visit www.tbs.com, www.tnt.tv or www.tcm.com.

A: We have a phrase at Turner: Network executives don't create great television; talent does. Our job is to put them in position to succeed. How great is it to be able to pick up a phone and call up your storytelling heroes and ask them to come work on a TV show? And to watch them work? That's the great piece of this job, the unique bond formed between people engaged in making something.

Q: And you broke yet another barrier and helped convince Conan O'Brien to join TBS.

A: If you say "Conan," I say, "special talent." Bringing him to TBS is an affirmation of everything I just said to you. We opened the dialogue with him literally by saying what I just said — network execs don't create good TV; talent does. Beyond all the real and important business implications of bringing someone like Conan to the network, it's such a pure play. We have a specific voice at TBS, a certain kind of comedy, and Conan is exactly what we love — very clever and yet not mean-spirited.

Q: How'd you pull it off?

A: I was in New York with my boss, [President of Turner Entertainment Networks] Steve Koonin, and a couple of other business buddies. We had just done a presentation to the sales group. We were talking about late night and one of us said, "Why aren't we going after Conan?" Steve and I looked at each other — we thought he was about to sign with Fox and we already had George Lopez on in late night — and Steve said, "Why don't we reach out to George and see how he feels about it?" George thought it was a great idea. So I reached out to Gavin Polone, Conan's agent, whom I've known for years, and asked, "Do you have a deal with Fox?" He said, "Not yet." So we started a dialogue. Funny how things are so simple sometimes.

Q: Even before that coup, you were rewriting the rules of basic cable, bringing great scripted drama to paid TV, starting with The Closer.

A: In 2003, our network decided that the brand had become so strong, the lineup so strong, that it was time to venture into the riskiest, but potentially most rewarding, area of programming — original series TV. Reruns of Law & Order were the tent pole on TNT at that time, and it was one of the more dominant programs on cable. USA was premiering Monk. FX had led the way with The Shield. It was clear that basic cable networks could do it.

But the hardest thing to do is to find a show that is commercially successful, draws an audience and also is creatively legitimate. So we reached out to producers across town, looking for a procedural drama that would have a cable sensibility — a little quirkier — but still appeal to fans of Law & Order. In the Closer pitch, [Executive Producer] James Duff began by doing the character of [Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson, the Golden Globe-winning role played by Kyra Sedgwick] in a scene in the pilot. It was based on the show's concept that typically, a Southern person is the dumbest in the room. But what if she was the toughest, smartest person in the room?

And so Duff does this scene where Brenda walks into a room and bosses around a big cop, who says to her, "There's no reason to be a bitch about it." And Brenda turns on him and says, "Sergeant, if I liked being called a bitch to my face, I'd still be married." So right out of the box, we knew we had a hit. Everybody on that show has their act so together.

Q: Pitches you love?

A: A great pitch begins and ends with a show runner writing about something with which he or she has familiarity, passion and conviction. It's usually brief. Begins and ends when the show runner comes in with a character. People tire of concepts very quickly in series TV. They come back because they have formed a relationship with the characters.

Q: Pitches you hate?

A: When there is no strong point of view in the room. No show runner. No dynamic character. In film, they have the luxury to stop, rewrite and reshoot. You don't have that luxury in episodic TV. If scripts are coming in and they're no good, you're screwed. So it begins and ends with the writer.

Q: You've said that UCLA gave you a big edge in your job.

A: We learned the building blocks of drama. It was drilled into us. Those basics were so well taught. The other thing so stressed when I was there was the artist's voice.

I still use what I learned on campus in every meeting I have. Great, great professors who should know there's a guy out there who's still making decisions based on things I learned in their classrooms. Once [UCLA Department of Theater Chair] Michael Hackett got up in a lecture hall and acted out a scene from Tristan and Isolde. I remember thinking, "Wow, this school is awesome." There was no sleeping in that class.

Q: What's the future of television?

A: Consumers of entertainment want to watch what they want, where they want, when they want. My company calls it "TV Everywhere," in which if you're, say, a Time Warner cable subscriber, you just authenticate that you're a customer, plug in your account number, and you can watch whatever [Time Warner programming] on whatever device you want to watch it on. So I think the future of television is very bright.

Q: But it's really all about the story, isn't it?

A: You go back to the pioneers like William Paley, who built CBS, and David Sarnoff, who founded NBC and led RCA, and there was this age-old conflict between content and distribution. Paley said it was all about the shows and Sarnoff the platforms, like the development of color TV. But television as a whole didn't go to full color until CBS started broadcasting all of its shows in color. So at the end of the day, the platform is secondary to what it's carrying. Make good entertainment, and you'll figure out a way to make money from it.

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