Kevin Reilly, a media executive who has served as the Chief Content Officer of HBO Max, the president of TNT, TBS, and truTV, held executive positions at WarnerMedia, FX, NBC, and Fox, and is responsible for many successful shows and programs, like The Sopranos (1999-2007), Empire (2015-2020), The Office (2005-2013), Friday Night Lights (2006-2011), Law & Order (1990-2010), and so many more, came to speak to the Katch U intern group. As someone who seemed like he’s done everything, Kevin had boundless amounts of wisdom to share. But first, he explained what exactly a Chief Content Officer is. The CCO, which is a relatively new term, came from the streaming era. It’s essentially the process of acquiring content in the form of old, new, or original film and television shows, and putting those shows into one service focused on the company’s strategic plans and goals. Kevin was the guy, along with a large team, who helped make decisions on which shows were brought to HBO Max, and which were cut loose.
Since the streaming era came in, this position and process has changed the way content is chosen and for how long a show stays running. Netflix has famously said “maybe we only need a series for 2 years” banking on viewers wanting new fresh content continuously. However, the downside is that shows which could be amazing are cut short too soon. Kevin wonders if there will ever be another 30 Rock (2006-2013) or The Office that shapes a generation of viewers and stays with audiences for multiple seasons and beyond.
Before joining the film and television industry, Kevin knew it was where he wanted to be… even if he didn’t know how to put it into words. As a kid, he was asked what he wanted to do when he grew up, and his simple answer was that he loved movies and television, and wanted to do “that,” even if he didn’t know what “that” was specifically. Kevin made his way up through multiple companies, working with award-winning shows, but always on the creative side of the business. He enjoyed working closely with creative talent, scripts, casting, and overseeing the final product. Kevin gained a reputation of being respectful to creative individuals, and it helped further his career and reach. Eventually, Kevin was overseeing multiple people and learned to trust his team to do the best job they could. With the amount of content Kevin was connected to, it was impossible to manage every small detail, so trusting his team became an important skill set for him.
Film and television have always had a big influence on Kevin’s life. From watching Lost in Space (1965-1968) or I Love Lucy (1951-1957) as a kid, to movies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) as a teen, it all blew him away. When asked what makes an influential movie or TV show, Kevin said “whether it’s a theme or character, or some execution in a plot, it has to hit a universal cord that speaks to each person on a personal level. That feeling of it’s for me, yet it’s for everyone.” Kevin worked on many iconic shows, but The Office still stands out as one of the best experiences, despite it being a dark time in his career. The Office wasn’t one of NBC’s “high ranking” shows, and when he championed The Office to keep going he was fired! The Office would go on to win an Emmy for best comedy, and a picture Kevin shared of him being lifted in the air by the cast just goes to show how much of an impact he had on the show, and how close he was to the project.
Kevin believes the introduction of streaming services has changed the industry in every way, and there are both positives and negatives that come with this change. The consumer experience has improved, people are now in control of what they watch and when, and the breadth of content has opened up. There is a variety of concepts and voices everyone can relate to, and Kevin hopes this continues with global voices. Previously, a “French film” was considered an art deco experience and didn’t exist much in the US outside of specialized theaters. Now, with streaming services featuring international shows like Netflix’s Lupin (2021-), a larger audience base is watching these shows from home without the need to find a specialized theater. Documentaries are booming on streaming services as well, which was not the norm in the past. New voices are coming up, and through streaming, film and television are becoming more international and diverse. The idea of “legacy franchises,” those shows that everyone still watches reruns of and helped shape a generation, such as The Office, has been upended. Streaming now allows people to watch an entire season in one sitting and move on to the next show in the blink of an eye, losing that connection between a show and its impact on the audience. Additionally, where it used to be common for shows to last 7+ season, streaming services are now leaning towards 2-3 seasons per show, as they assume audiences will lose interest and move on to the next shiny thing. The industry is being forced to change things up, as the things they did successfully before are now what’s stopping them from moving forward. The idea of “if it works, why change it?” no longer fits and everyone is being forced to adapt and react. Going to the cinema is no longer a good consumer experience, even before the pandemic, and movies are now being released straight to streaming services. Kevin believes we’ll only see a fraction of the movies we did before going to theaters first, and wonders if the days of classic timeless movies like The Godfather are behind us if a movie simply “drops” on a streaming service then disappears.
While audiences are hungry for more content, Kevin explains that this hunger is forcing companies to deliver show after show at a much quicker pace, and that may not be conducive to good quality shows. Typically, the industry process was like a funnel and an idea or a production had to go through multiple “filters” before it was finally released. Streaming services are missing that funnel, and that means sometimes the content isn’t as good as it could have been if given a bit more time. But, for better or worse, streaming services don’t seem to be going anywhere.
Next, Kevin is focusing on his own company, having stepped away from Warner Media, and is set on the international business. The saying that talent is spread out evenly throughout the world is true, but the challenge with finding a market or enough capital is difficult. There may be a demand for content in other countries, but no theaters or networks to show them. Kevin hopes to help small businesses and industries internationally by creating a system that works for them, helping to reach a more global audience. The system he’s perfected in the US can be taken internationally, and Kevin knows the appetite for foreign content is there, now it just needs more access. Streaming services have provided one such access, but he hopes to help more.
In the spirit of helping others, Kevin offered some words of advice for the Katch U interns when it comes to pitching. First, and most importantly, KEEP IT SHORT! People can always say “tell me more”, but the last thing you want to do is babble on and on and bore them. It’s okay to bring in notes, but don’t read from them line by line, and don’t go on for twenty-five minutes stating every small detail the person probably doesn’t need to know yet. Make your pitches personal. Bring the story alive. And tell a story, not details! Plan to have more information that you say in your pitch so when you are asked for more details you have them prepared. There are few unique ideas out there but bringing your personal experience or connection to your story is what will sell the idea. Flipping a familiar idea on its head and making sure it’s layered and unique, coming from a person’s personal view… that’s what makes a story unique.
So, what final advice did Kevin have for the Katch U interns? Three things:
Curiosity. “Curious, curious, curious…always be curious”. Ask questions. Seek out information. Continue to learn and grow. You want to learn everything you can about the industry, so go out and find the answers to questions you didn’t even know you had.
Resilience. Be tenacious when you get knocked down. You will get knocked down a lot, and you must be resilient! Believe in yourself. Even at the height of your career, you still must be resilient! Success doesn’t always happen the way you think it will but being tenacious will help you grow.
Vulnerability. Put yourself out there to ask for people’s advice. You might get shot down or turned away, but you also might find someone who is great and gives you a shred of something that makes a difference. Use your connections and don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone.