TNT has stepped into the competition
reality series arena with the debut of
The Great Escape, a new competition
show in which teams of contestants
engage in such challenges as trying
to break out of Alcatraz. Michael Wright, president
and head of programming for Turner Broadcasting
System’s entertainment networks — TNT, TBS and
Turner Classic Movies — spoke with programming
editor R. Thomas Umstead before the drama network
added that dose of reality TV to a successful lineup
of scripted series such as Rizzoli & Isles and Dallas.
The June 24 debut episode of The Great Escape —
from producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and
the creators of The Amazing Race, and hosted by
NFL Network’s Rich Eisen — drew a respectable 1.6
million viewers, though that was less half of the 3.8
million viewers who watched its lead-in show, scripted
drama Falling Skies.
MCN: Why did you decide to move into the reality space
this summer with The Great Escape?
Michael Wright: Actually we tried once before, with [2009’s]
Wedding Day, and it failed. That was my mistake … It was a
beautifully produced show from Mark Burnett, but we made
a reality show that had no connection to the network. I fell
in love with the pitch and the pilot and it was very deeply felt
and entertaining, but it didn’t fit on
It remains to be seen whether
people will respond to The Great
Escape, but the idea here was very
much the same idea that’s behind
Falling Skies and our other Sunday
development shows, and that’s
to program to those fans that are
coming to TNT on the weekends
for feature films. If you like The
BourneIdentity, if you like Transformers,
if you like Gladiator and
other big, fun action movies, you’re
going to love [The Great Escape].
The premise is very simple: we
take three teams of two and lock
them up somewhere — one episode
is in a prison, one episode is
in the brig of the [aircraft carrier]
USS Hornet; one episode they’re literally
in a padded room in an insane
asylum — and they have to
break out through four or five subsequent
stages that require physical
abilities, some mental abilities
and some require street smarts.
It levels the playing field. It isn’t just
the biggest and strongest that wins,
but the contestants become characters in an action movie.
The big learning for us was to find something that has
a chance to appeal to people [who] are already coming to
the network. That’s really fundamental to what we’re trying
to do — that’s programming 101 — try to program to
people that are already coming to the network as well as
expand reach by crafting programming that can bring
new people to the network at the same time.
MCN : So you’re not necessarily concerned with whether the
reality genre would work on the network, but rather whether
you have the right show to fit the network’s core audience.
MW: No, we have huge concerns because it’s new — I’m
not Pollyanna about it. Here’s the reality: you have to be
in that space. If you’re a cable drama network and you’re a
top-five cable drama network, as we are, and you’re competitive,
then you have to react to viewer interest. [The
reality genre] is not a fad or a trend; it’s just part of the
television landscape. People love good, unscripted television
… when it’s good, it’s as good as any scripted show,
and when it’s bad it’s bad.
I think the learning for me and for us from our failed effort
was that we made a really well-produced show for the
wrong network. What we’ve tried to do here, as we’ve stated
when we said we were going to get into the unscripted
business in a very robust way on both TNT and TBS, was
to look at already is coming to the network and try to get
into this space that people already watching TNT will find
accessible. We know that fans coming to TNT for those
movies over the weekend are more likely to watch a competition
reality show than other reality, so there’s both art
and science to this.
MCN: Will you look to develop other unscripted series if
this one is successful?
MW: The other area you’re likely to see us explore is crime
and investigation in the unscripted space because we
know that people who love a good scripted procedural
have a higher frequency watching unscripted crime and
investigation programming than they do other forms.
The show that we picked up from Donnie Wahlberg, Boston
Blue, is a terrific, really smart show that will premiere
in 2013. We picked it up both because we liked what they
made but also because we felt that we had a better chance
with that than other shows at appealing to people already
coming to the network.
MCN: Do you feel reality programming will also give you
an opportunity to bring new viewers to the network?
MW: Part of the hope with getting into the unscripted space
is to do it in a way that doesn’t alienate anyone that already
comes to TNT and loves the network while at the same time
expanding reach, especially with younger viewers. A network
such as TNT that is branded a drama network that is
not participating in the unscripted space is committing a sin
of omission. For a lot of viewers, unscripted is as viable a form
of drama as scripted — if not more so in some cases — so we
have to go there.
We love our viewers and want to give them what they want,
and if they are coming to TNT to experience great drama and
not deliver anything in the unscripted space, then we’re denying
drama fans something that has become an essential
part of their viewing.