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James Hibberd

Kevin Reilly’s Prestige

July 22, 2007 4:12 PM

Kevin Reilly is back on the TCA stage, looking as if he just pulled off a particularly fine trick – which, of course, he did.

Any competent illusionist can make something disappear, lectures Michael Caine's character in “The Prestige.” But the challenging part, the really impressive bit that separates tradesmen from masters, is the prestige – when the magician makes the object unexpectedly reappear.

Reilly was pushed out from a fourth-ranked network and vanished from sight [gasp!]. But now’s he’s back at TCA, just two months later, as the entertainment president of the first-place network [yea!]. Reilly himself notes, “You're usually not presented, 99 percent of the time, with an opportunity to get back into another network—particularly one that you want to be at,” and you almost expect him to take a little bow. Thank you, and for my next illusion I shall require the assistance of a lady from the audience and a laptop.

The maneuver arguably says something reassuring about the television industry. If you’re strongly associated with quality shows, even if your ratings aren’t so hot, you will remain in demand.

Moreover, Reilly has always played the part of a network president so well that it’s hard to imagine him doing anything else. Picture Kevin Reilly slouching around the house all day, eating Life cereal in khaki shorts, anonymously posting opinions on “Friday Night Lights” message boards … it doesn’t work.

At the panel, Reilly gets a large number of NBC-to-Fox transition questions and he does a good job walking the tightrope between acknowledging his affection for programs he helped create and shrugging off years of work to pledge allegiance to Fox’s flag.

“Since I'm now in a situation where I personally feel really satisfied … I don't have that deep-seated, sort of torn emotion about it,” he says of shows like “Lights” and “30 Rock.” “I would like the best for them … [but] if those shows deserve to work, they will.”

Reilly was seated beside his ex-FX and new Fox boss Peter Liguori, who has no such ambivalence about Reilly’s prior efforts: “I want them to be all bloody failures,” Liguori declares.

Critics successfully stump Reilly at one point, however, inquiring about NBC’s famous dedication to sticking with low-rated quality show vs. Fox. How would “Lights” have fared on his new network?

“Notice how that answer just leaps out of my mouth,” he quips after a moment of thought. “I don't think it's really correct to say that Fox has necessarily had a quicker trigger finger.”

Reilly makes a case for Fox nurturing “House” and “Prison Break,” but the best example that Fox does occasionally stick with a promising flop is “Arrested Development” – great acclaim, terrible ratings, three seasons.

The other awkward part of Reilly’s new job is working with a fall schedule that is not his own. Reilly wrestled with this same issue when he first joined NBC. But this time, he says, the situation is more favorable for ongoing success.

“It is somewhat awkward,” he says.“ The good news is I'm not sort of getting behind the wheel feeling like the wheels are about to come off. … I'm going to be pretty low-impact in terms of the on-air stuff. The network's running well. I don't need to [say] 'everyone back up, I'm here to fix things.'"

When asked if it was accurate for NBC to say he was “fired,” Reilly smiles.

“No one is ever really ‘fired’ in Hollywood,” he says. “And no show is ever really canceled. You can pick whatever trade euphemism you want. I ‘segued,’ I want to ‘explore other opportunities,’ I wanted to ‘spend more time with my family’ – which I did for three days. All I can say is it ended up being very equitable.”

Liguori phoned quickly after his ouster, Reilly says. At first Reilly thought he was just another polite well-wisher. Once offered the job, Reilly says, “it didn’t take a lot of convincing” for him to accept.

“The environment feels right,” he says.

Reilly painted the Fox culture in glowing terms, but acknowledged a positive corporate culture is likely due to the network’s success. By comparison, Reilly admits he has a tough time being objective about his former home. “I just played through an extreme down-cycle at the previous place, which tends to not bring out the best in people,” he says.

Seeking to shift the critics’ focus off Reilly’s former network, Liguori says: “Our sights are not set on the No. 4 network. Our sights are set on the No. 1 network and creating a distance between us and the No. 2 network. … [We’re] playing our own game and not getting caught up in all this circus that, frankly, is a waste of time and doesn't help our network.”


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