“Comedy always feels like it directly correlates to the state of the world. So, what I think you are seeing now is a lot of comedies becoming funnier because the world is really dark,” said Brett Weitz, executive vice president of original programming, in a keynote interview with New York Television Festival Founder and Executive Director Terence Gray on the festival’s opening day on Monday.
“For us right now, the challenging thing in comedy is we are not just competing with FX, Comedy Central, Hulu and all these other places, we are also competing with you guys,” he added. “You have to make good stuff that is destination programming. You have to stand out in the crowd.”
Weitz started his career in the mail room at UTA, ultimately landing a job for a TV literary agent and, eventually, at production company Columbia TriStar (now Sony Pictures Television) as an assistant working in the comedy department during the era of sitcoms such as Mad About You and The King of Queens.
Next was a stint at a new company created by Michael Ovitz called the Artists Television Group, followed by a return to Columbia TriStar working on dramas such as Everwood and Hack, a move to Twentieth Century Fox where he developed a new studio called Studio 21 and, finally, to TNT. At the time time, TNT drama The Closer ruled the ratings, which led to dramas such as Rizzoli & Isles, Franklin & Bash and the revival of Dallas.
“When I was asked to move to TBS, I was given something you rarely have the opportunity to do in Hollywood and that is being asked what is your vision for this network,” said Weitz. “We had money behind us, we had good creative connections and we were building TBS as a destination for original programming.”
TBS as ‘Main Street’
In its infancy, TBS was a platform for encore telecasts of The Andy Griffith Show, Little House on the Prairie and other evergreen product. But a shift towards a more upscale audience by approximately 2001 came via the acquisition of off-network comedies such as Friends, Seinfeld and Home Improvement, while the arrival of talker Conan, hosted by Conan O’Brien, was the cable net’s most ambitious entry in late night.
Today, the goal is a diversified slate of higher profile and more socially relevant original sitcoms, anchored by Angie Tribeca, under the leadership of TNT and TBS President and Turner Entertainment Chief Creative Officer Kevin Reilly.
“What you have to remember is TBS is still a superstation, but it is also ‘main street’ and that requires a ‘let’s take you out of the reality of the world’ type mentality. For 21 minutes, you can have a humorous escape. We are not curing cancer, but we are making people laugh.”
With Reilly’s arrival in 2015, came a new goal: rebrand TBS and show the world that this network is not what it once was.
“Four of us sat in my office and looked at pictures of dozens of magazines to see what we wanted the network to look like,” said Weitz. “The same thing you would do for production of a TV show or a feature film, we created a vision and said ‘we want this place to just have this aesthetic. We want this tone and we want this vibe.’”
“At that point we had Angie Tribeca in the hopper, we were shooting the pilots for The Detour and Wrecked and Kevin [Reilly] got a sense of what that new vibe was,” he added. “Our goal was to change what was then The Big Bang Theory network, which still does well for us, and shift the pendulum to some cool and original comedies.”
The Defining Moment
With the new key comedy elements in place, TBS paired binge-watching with social media for the Angie Tribea Binge-a-Thon featuring all season one episodes, which became a social media hit.
“Tweets started coming in, people started calling and it was a signal to the community that there was an important change at TBS,” said Weitz. “In our first year of the relaunch, we renewed all six of our series and the transformation was evident. We were no longer just an outlet for Friends or Seinfeld or Big Bang. The ratings were increasing, the audience was talking, and that vibe just felt good.”
“Now, of course, we have to continually look ahead and find more unique shows that fit our identity,” he added. “FX is here and we are not there yet, but we are on our way.”
[Images courtesy of Marc Berman]