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Network Q&A: TBS/TNT's Michael Wright On Why He Saved Cougar Town And Plans For Next Season

Date May 16, 2012

Courteney Cox

Newly promoted TNT/TBS president/head of programming Michael Wright made a few new friends when he sealed a deal to pick up fan favorite comedy Cougar Town from ABC. After a quick negotiation, TBS ordered 15 episodes of the show, which will premiere its fourth season next winter. The network will also start airing Cougar Town repeats. Wright, who previously saved Southland after NBC canceled it, says there will be no changes to the sitcom. Meanwhile, over at TNT, Wright says he's eager to change the perception that the network's dramas only dabble in "self-seriousness or earnestness." Frank Darabont's L.A. Noir isn't ready to be ordered as a series, but Wright expects to air it on Sundays, where the network is specializing in genre shows like Falling Skies.

TNT will also continue to air more procedurals and mystery series on Mondays and Tuesdays — although he hesitates to call new David E. Kelley drama Monday Mornings a "medical procedural." Wright is also boosting the unscripted fare at Turner, ordering the comedy clip show Deon Cole's Black Box (from Conan O'Brien's company) and the Ashton Kutcher-produced hidden camera comedy Who Gets the Last Laugh for TBS, plus the action competition show 72 Hours and the Donnie Wahlberg-produced cop docuseries Boston Blueat TNT. 

Wright spoke to TV Guide Magazine about resurrecting Cougar Town and how he's broadening TNT.

TV Guide Magazine: You made a lot of Cougar Town fans very happy with the pick-up. Walk me through how this happened.
Michael Wright: It happened because of a conversation between the folks at ABC Studios and myself. We're doing other business with them on a show called Perception that we're really high on, and in the course of conversation I was asked, "What do you think of Cougar Town?" I told them I loved the show. We had done a show a couple years back called My Boys that I absolutely loved, and I think although they are different shows there's a similarity to them. They're character-based and the humor is mined from the way good, close friends interact.

There's an honesty to the characters on Cougar Town, and I just always loved [creator] Bill Lawrence's voice. I think he and Kevin [Biegel] have created this really fun place to go. I love going to the cul-de-sac, my wife and I have our glasses of wine, and we're laughing because we recognize these people. Bill has this tone and it's whimsical, this sense of fun. Everybody's having a great time. That's the kind of comedy I want to spend time with on a weeknight. So they asked me, if it became available, would you be interested? 

This is different from Southland, where I went after that after reading that NBC was passing, and called John Wells that morning. This was them referencing Southland and saying, "So does this mean you guys are open to shows from elsewhere?" And my answer has always been, I don't care where the show comes from, if it's on brand and works and is funny and can help us win, I'm interested. Then they called back a week later and said, "Well, now this is serious, how serious are you?"

It's one thing to buy a new show and develop it and try to put it on the air. When you're picking up a show from another network, it's amazing how many moving parts need to be addressed. I'm happily surprised we were ultimately able to land the plane. A show I think is incredibly on brand, very funny, represents the tone that we're going after on TBS, and I couldn't be happier.

TV Guide Magazine: What does Cougar Town mean for TBS? It's an established show that brings a loyal fan base.
Wright: At a time when TBS is trying very hard to let people know that we are serious about original comedy, to have a show like this that is already known and has a great fan base, it just affirms what we're out there telling people, which is we're stepping out aggressively in the original comedy space. We're incredibly enthused about Men at Work, it's a very funny show. Sullivan & Sonis just getting started, we think that show has huge promise. To add Cougar Town to it, now with Men at Workand Sullivan and Wedding Band, you're letting people know we're going to be in this space for a while, we're serious about it, and I think [with] all of those shows you'll begin to see the brand affirmed. Smart, funny, irreverent but not snarky, a contemporary spirit to the comedy that we're attracted to.

You look at Conan and Big Bang Theory[repeats] especially, they're all relevant in their own way. There's a brightness to them. None of them are mean-spirited. You add it all up, and I hope the audience recognizes a certain kind of comedy that TBS is putting out there — relevant, smart, funny.

TV Guide Magazine: Whenever a cable network picks up a broadcast show, the sense is they have to make budget cuts in order to afford it. Will they have to make budget cuts and slim down Cougar Town?
Wright: I would point out Southland to anyone who's watched the show since it moved to TNT. It's a better show than it was when it was on NBC. Part of that is just the natural evolution and growth of a good TV show, but also in some ways, having to figure that show out for cable I think focused them and made it an even better show. Cougar Town, I can tell you, from a budget standpoint there's not going to be any sort of significant hit to the show. The cast is coming back, the writing staff is intact, we are making the same Cougar Town that was on ABC. My comments to Bill and Kevin and Courteney Cox are, "I bought the show because I love the show and I have to intention of asking them to change it. This show is great, keep doing it. No one is looking over your shoulder."

TV Guide Magazine: Let's talk about TNT. How do David E. Kelley and Monday Mornings fit into that network's program strategy?
Wright: I think we've identified a couple of key audiences on TNT that we're really enthused about, we know they come to us for certain kinds of shows. We're not making one show repeatedly, we're making several different kinds of shows that have a similar tone to them. You'll hear us at the upfront talk about a "popcorn mindset." That doesn't mean low-brow action flicks, what it means is there's a sense of excitement and entertainment and going on a great ride with TNT drama.

Some might call Monday Morningsa medical procedural. I really don't. What David does better than anybody is create phenomenal characters, memorable, distinct interesting characters and he mines the drama of inter-personal conflict. It has that wonderfully familiar David E. Kelley mixture of ironic humor and intense emotion. I think it's a great compliment to the brand. It's a smart, emotionally engaging ride of a genre.

TV Guide Magazine: And as a bonus, you have the Turner synergy of CNN'sDr. Sanjay Gupta as a producer.
Wright: He's one of those people that if he wasn't such a fantastic human being, you'd hate him for all that he has accomplished. It's amazing. He is a world-class surgeon, he's a writer, a television personality, and by all accounts an amazing father and family man. Just an all-around great guy. So it doesn't surprise me for his first foray in TV he hooks up with David E. Kelley. The two of them, it's one of the best pilots I've ever seen. That's a pretty A+ team.

TV Guide Magazine: Let's talk about L.A. Noir. Where might that go?
Wright:L.A. Noirwe see as a Sunday night show. We're trying to build a great, fun genre night. Falling Skies, Leverage, L.A. Noir.It's Frank Darabont doing a mob LAPD crime drama set in 1940s L.A. It's smart, intense and fun. So Sunday we go big genre. Obviously Monday-Tuesday we've had great success with our procedurals and mysteries. L.A. Noir is not going up against our procedurals, it's being developed for a different opportunity. We will shoot more pilots later this year to address slots that will become available in 2013. You can't presume that everything on your schedule will come back, but we will pilot after this summer to see how things go this summer.

TV Guide Magazine: Unscripted seems to be becoming a priority for you.
Wright: As part of both networks going to a year-round schedule in 2013, TNT we've been focusing on two pretty specific areas. Just as L.A. Noiris a Sunday night genre show meant to go after that dual gender, younger audience we have on the weekend, and our procedurals are targeted more to mid-week, a little bit older and more female. We're taking a similar approach with our unscripted stuff. We've been chasing two different categories for our first efforts. Big, cinematic exciting competition shows for Sunday night and unscripted dramas in the crime and mystery space for mid-week.

You guys know about The Great Escape, which is a big Sunday night show for us. In that same spirit is the show 72 Hours. It's such a cool, simple conceit: Three teams of three are dropped into this visually stunning but harsh wilderness environment. In the pilot we took them to an uninhabited island near Maui. We dropped them from helicopters, and the host is waiting for them there. He's got a suitcase of $100,000 and tells them, here's the good news: the first person to get to this suitcase gets the money. But the bad news [is], you've got to find it. The helicopter comes, takes the money and drops it about 20 miles away on the other side of the island. The hook of the show is the contestants are given a bottle of water and a GPS tracking device, and there are four stages along the way. They have 72 hours to find the money. That's a show where the pilot was shot in Hawaii, but we would go to New Zealand, the bayous of Louisiana. Always the same idea.

Other show is Boston Blue, basically 24/7 in the life of the Boston Police strike force. These guys handle the roughest crimes in Boston. Donnie Wahlberg is a Boston boy and he got amazing access through his relationships that allowed us to put cameras in the cars and go places. What I love is half of the show is following them in the course of their work, and these are some pretty mean streets. These are guys going after really bad guys, and they got it on film.

The strategy behind both of these is, let's take audiences that are already coming to our network for other programming, and see if we can bring them to unscripted drama.

TV Guide Magazine: It sounds like you ought to pick up the syndicated episodes of Blue Bloods and pair it with Boston Blue.
Wright: You know, we'll see. I like that show. It's a quiet little performer at CBS. They do such a great job at CBS.

TV Guide Magazine: What else is coming up for you?
Wright: We picked up two TBS reality comedies. King of the Nerdswas picked up to speak to the Big Bang crowd, that's self-explanatory. Deon Cole's Black Box is basically Deon riffing on pop culture using TV clips, internet clips, things that are out there in the pop-culture universe, riffing on it from his own perspective. He's such a funny man, one of the great writers on Conan. And Who Gets The Last Laugh comes from Jason [Goldberg] and Ashton [Kutcher], who have proven their ability to have a lot of fun with hidden camera comedy. Take two comedians, give them a team of improv artists and pull a prank on some unsuspecting civilian, and then watch an audience vote at the end. Winning comedian gives charity donation.

I hope what's coming across is that we're serious about expanding. Both networks are expanding dramatically, that should be evident by the amount of programming we're talking about. We are getting into the unscripted space energetically on both networks.

In a perfect world I want people to think of TBS comedy in the same way they view a Todd Phillips or Judd Apatow comedy: Smart, relevant, sarcastic but big-hearted. That's the comedy brand we're chasing.

 

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