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5 things you need to know about former Fox president Kevin Reilly’s move to cable

Kevin Reilly (right) hangs out with Conan O'Brien at an event in February. The former Fox president is O'Brien's new boss at TBS.
Kevin Reilly (right) hangs out with Conan O'Brien at an event in February. The former Fox president is O'Brien's new boss at TBS.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Yesterday, cable networks TBS and TNT hired former Fox president Kevin Reilly to head up their efforts. Reilly is also going to be in charge of a venture that aims to get all Turner networks (including entities like Cartoon Network and TruTV) to share talent and resources, according to Vulture's Joe Adalian.

Reilly's an interesting hire for the networks, both because of his skills and because he suggests how the line between broadcast TV and cable networks is completely dissolving.

Here are five things you need to know.

1) Kevin Reilly is good at developing TV shows — but not so good at building great schedules

Just a short skim of the list of shows developed at FX (The Shield), NBC (Friday Night Lights), and Fox (New Girl) under Reilly's guidance points to some of the best TV shows of the last 20 years. The man understands what good television looks and feels like, and even if he makes plenty of missteps (in the nature of the game), he's rarely content to simply accept business as usual. (See also: his crazy plan to kill pilot season at Fox, a plan his successors are mostly rolling back.)

But what did in Reilly at Fox and NBC (though he was far less to blame in the latter case) is an inability to build a cohesive schedule. Reilly's failures were protected for years at Fox because American Idol would come on at midseason and save the entire network's ratings. Once Idol started to slip, however, the weakness of his overall lineup became more and more apparent.

When it debuted, New Girl looked like it would be a hit that ran for a decade; now, its ratings have slipped so much it will be lucky to run half that amount of time. Some of that, to be sure, is on the general attrition of all network television. But some of it is also on Reilly, who tried to turn the show into a cornerstone too quickly, taking away its Glee lead-in and hurting both shows in the process.

2) But scheduling probably won't matter to TBS and TNT

In the past, going from a broadcast network to a cable channel would have been considered at least a slight demotion for someone of Reilly's stature. But in 2014, it's arguably what he should have been doing all along.

See, cable networks are better protected from the sorts of market forces that are choking broadcast TV. Because they rely on advertising and fees paid by cable providers that subscribe to them (fees subsidized by your cable bill), they have more room to experiment and try different things. That's why so much of the new era of great TV dramas (and, increasingly, comedies) is driven by cable networks.

Thus, Reilly will need to worry about scheduling on TBS and TNT, but he won't need to worry about it as much as he did at Fox, because his commitments to advertisers will be less pressing, and his commitments to local affiliates will be non-existent. (TBS is the same everywhere in the country, but you have a local Fox station that relies on the parent network to provide it with great ratings.) He can focus more on developing great programs — his strength — and trying to see if one of them hits.

3) That's almost certainly just what TBS and TNT want him to do

TBS and TNT have great ratings for many of their programs. The Big Bang Theory reruns on TBS routinely pull numbers better than lower-rated programming on the broadcast networks, while TNT's crime dramas like Rizzoli & Isles are massively successful.

But like USA — the closest comparison point for either network — TBS and TNT have struggled to find critical buzz and the kinds of younger viewers advertisers crave. Indeed, TNT has done a surprisingly lousy job at this, considering its status as one of the nation's top 10 cable networks. (TBS at least has Conan and the enjoyable sitcom Ground Floor.)

Thus, the networks seem to be betting that Reilly can use his talent for developing good TV to build critical buzz, which will hopefully turn into better viewership among younger people (who are more likely to pay attention to such things and/or read about television on the internet) eventually. That process will take time, but TNT and TBS have a distinct advantage over a network that isn't already known for producing original programming.

4) Plus, TV journalists really, really like Kevin Reilly

Network heads and TV journalists have weird, codependent relationships not unlike those that develop between political press secretaries. Both sides may secretly despise each other, but the symbiosis that develops between them — particularly at the Television Critics Association press tour — is constantly present.

Reilly plays this game about as well as anyone. TV journalists — myself included — are often willing to cut him a lot of slack because he has developed a lot of shows we love, is willing to admit to his failings in public settings, and has the same skepticism about the future of television that we do. He gives the impression of candor, which is sometimes just enough — and quite a bit more than most other network heads. Indeed, when Reilly left Fox (or, more likely, was made to leave), it came after a lengthy series of interviews with the press, designed to push his "no more pilot season!" initiative and, thus, came as a bit of a shock — even though his performance at the network over the past few seasons merited him losing his job.

That's always healthy for readers to consider when looking at coverage of Reilly, but TBS and TNT are likely hoping the general affection for him in the press carries over into positive coverage of overall network dealings (and maybe even programming).

5) The line between broadcast and cable has all but disappeared

Reilly's initiative at Fox always seemed to be about trying to bring cable business models to broadcast TV. That was all well and good, but those business models weren't particularly well-suited to advertiser-sponsored television, which is why his plan ultimately failed.

However, look at the lineup of programs that TBS and TNT run — lots of reruns of network shows, peppered with occasional original programs that look a lot like those shows — and it becomes clear that the lines between these two worlds are blurrier than people who write about TV and hardcore TV fans might let on. The TV world is more complicated than "cable good, network bad," and there's a lot of middle ground to play in between the cool, arty tones of Mad Men and the mass-market appeal of Big Bang Theory.

By going to TNT and TBS, Reilly is going to get to play in that middle ground, while subjected to fewer economic pressures than he was at Fox. He might prove disastrous at the job, but it certainly doesn't feel like a demotion for him like it might have once. Instead, it feels like he's found where he always wanted to be in the first place.