As much as Disney and AT&T’s WarnerMedia wouldn’t want to admit it, they have a lot in common.
Both entertainment companies just went through massive mergers (Disney and Fox; AT&T and Time Warner), are in the midst of creating new streaming services to take on Netflix (each rolling out within the next year) that will draw on the assets of their respective companies, and within a 24-hour period, both pitched advertisers on their respective visions during their upfront presentations.
But when it comes to how each company views their brands, their differences become apparent.
One day after Disney stressed the growing importance of its brands during Tuesday afternoon’s event, WarnerMedia unveiled plans at its own presentation Wednesday morning to begin blurring the branding of its own biggest networks, a risky move that could undo years of effort to craft TBS’ comedy brand. And that’s because TBS will begin airing original dramas next year, starting with Snowpiercer, which is based on the 2013 movie.
“We’re in the midst of a transformation at WarnerMedia,” explained Kevin Reilly, president of TBS and TNT and chief creative officer, WarnerMedia direct-to-consumer, during his company’s event Wednesday morning. “Part of this transformation is how we think about networks. We’re going to be more flexible in our programming strategy and go where the audience is and use every programming tool and asset we have to maximize delivery and connection.”
He added, “TBS, TNT and truTV are stronger if we’re less bound by a single brand position or genre.”
Reilly said he’ll use March Madness and its audience of 125 million, including next year’s NCAA Men’s Championship Game, to help launch Snowpiercer next spring, the same approach that boosted TBS comedy The Last O.G. two years ago.
But dramas won’t be the only genre suddenly popping up on TBS. The network will simulcast the upcoming TNT series Chasing the Cure Live, which host Ann Curry called “an effort to unleash the power of crowdsourcing” and help people who are suffering from undiagnosed or misdiagnosed medical mysteries.
TBS’ abrupt shift into other genres threatens to tarnish the brand that the network has been cultivating since it began focusing on the comedy in 2003. While the network rolled out the “Very funny” slogan a year later, in truth, the network was anything but funny for many years.
That changed with Conan O’Brien’s arrival in 2010 and series like Cougar Town, which relocated to TBS in 2013 after ABC canceled it. But it wasn’t until Reilly arrived in 2014 that the network really found its comedic voice, with programs like Full Frontal With Samantha Bee and edgy series Angie Tribeca, Search Party, The Last O.G. and The Detour. The new Nasim Pedrad comedy Chad, which TBS picked up today, seems very much in line with that sensibility as well.
The decision to disrupt and dilute that comedic DNA doesn’t seem to make sense. After all, cable networks don’t try to be all things to all people the way that streaming services like Netflix do—or even broadcasters these days. So why should a comedy network suddenly branch into other genres?
Reilly acknowledged that TBS is “a top five network” on cable, but if viewers who expect to find comedy on the network instead tune-in and discover new laugh-free content, they may go elsewhere for their comedy needs. (Which could be great news for Comedy Central and IFC.)
More than a dozen networks learned that the hard way in recent years. After trying to replicate AMC and FX’s success in the premium scripted series by suddenly moving into that space, networks like Discovery, E!, A&E and more have either pulled out of scripted entirely or significantly curtailed their efforts there.