From NBC to PBS, here’s who decides what you watch
This is the hardest time of year to be a television executive.
With the fall season looming, the heads of entertainment at the major networks have to decide what shows you’ll watch next season. Some will be surprise hits. Others embarrassing failures. And it will all come down to the choices executives make in the next few weeks.
Pilot season resolves in May with splashy upfront presentations to advertisers, where networks will find out how well they’ve chosen by how many millions of dollars advertisers decide to spend during their shows. A good greenlight will follow an executive throughout his or her career. A bad one will make him or her a laughingstock.
But no head of entertainment is an island. Every decision to put a show on the air comes with hours of deliberation with people above and below the chief. So we talked with the heads of ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS and individuals from the various studios that pitch them to see how the decisions of what you’ll be watching next September are made — and who are the players behind those decisions.
See photos: The Faces of Pilot Season 2014
ABC: PAUL LEE
Title: President of ABC Entertainment Group
Background: Lee makes the greenlight decisions at ABC. But this year will be the last one he does so with the input of his boss, President of Disney-ABC Television Group Anne Sweeney. She’s leaving to become a TV director, and being replaced by ABC News Chief Ben Sherwood, who will also be involved in this year’s pilot process.
The executive is known to search out advice and opinions on pilots. “Paul Lee makes decisions by committee,” one former studio executive told TheWrap.
Quote: “Well, I think like everyone else, I have a comedy team and a drama team and, of course, I consult with my teams on which shows to pickup,” Lee told TheWrap. “They are a very passionate group and have strong opinions which certainly weigh heavily. But in the end you have to trust your gut and go with the shows you believe in.”
Tough Decisions: Lee’s job is complicated by his network’s close relationship with Disney. A synergistic “Avengers” spinoff like “Marvels Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” was a sure thing at the network no matter who was at the president’s desk.
“Marvel is a big gorilla in the company there, so they don’t go through the same pilot process,” said an individual who has represented several studios in the pilot-pitching process.
Lee also has a fondness for broad comedies that sometimes confound critics, like “The Neighbors” and “Work It.”
Hits: ABC’s latest show, the drama “Resurrection,” has been one of its biggest hits. It has performed well in both of its last two weeks.
Misses: “Lucky 7” was the first new fall show on any network to be canceled this season — even though it was part of the same Tuesday-night block as “S.H.I.E.L.D.”
See photos: 16 of Disney-ABC’s Hits and Misses
CBS: NINA TASSLER
Title: Chairman of CBS Entertainment
Background: The longest-serving network entertainment chief recently renewed her contract to stay with the most-watched network through 2017. Tassler works closely with CBS CEO Les Moonves, who pays close attention to how the network’s shows perform. (He recently opined to investors that three new comedies, “Mom,” “The Millers” and “Crazy Ones” all “appear to be working,” and that CBS’s problem is always where to fit all of its hits.) What Tassler doesn’t do is weigh in on CBS’s corporate cousins, the prestige cable network Showtime and the CBS- and Warner Bros.-owned CW. Greenlight power at those networks resides with David Nevins and Mark Pedowitz, respectively.
Quote: CBS Corp., as a company, does not discuss its greenlight process. But Tassler did tell us this when asked with whom she consults: “Me, Les, really it comes down to a small core group of people. Everybody weighs in and we have a great process of sort of filtering through and letting everybody have a voice and express their point of view. It’s a great forum in which to let the cream rise to the top and then make those decisions.”
Tough Decisions: Moonves is right: CBS has a deep bench of high-performing shows. Some of them do very well in viewers, but not as well in the key 18-49 demographic, which means CBS has to choose every year whether to cater to its older viewers or make a play for younger ones. It still has the top-performing sitcom in the demo, “The Big Bang Theory.” And “NCIS” thrives with a graying audience especially, though in a sign of the times, the cable show “The Walking Dead” defeats it in the demo. Still, most networks would love to have a dilemma like CBS does.
Hits: Greenlighting “The Big Bang Theory” was Tassler’s greatest gift to CBS. She also greenlit the longrunning “How I Met Your Mother,” which the network is spinning off. Before she was CBS’s President of Entertainment — she was just promoted to Chairman — she helped develop hits including “NCIS” and “CSI.”
Misses: Disappointments this season included “Hostages” and “We Are Men.”
See photos: The Faces of Pilot Season 2014
FOX: KEVIN REILLY
Title: Chairman of entertainment for Fox Broadcasting Co.
Background: The chairman of entertainment for Fox, who has been on the job since 2007, takes full responsibility for what goes on the network’s air. But he consults with his staff and his boss, Fox Networks Group CEO Peter Rice. Though Fox has run into recent ratings troubles due largely to “American Idol” slipping in popularity, Reilly has had a remarkably successful run. The network spent years as the top-rated in the key 18-49 demographic before CBS snatched the crown last season.
But individuals from rival networks, as well as Fox insiders, said not to overlook Fox chief operating officer Joe Earley’s contributions to the pilot selection process. He has had a big say in what gets greenlit at the network since he took the job two years ago, and his say is expected to be greater now that both programming and development report to him.
Quote: “I certainly talk to my staff and get a lot of input, but at the end of the day, for better or for worse, the buck stops with me,” Reilly told TheWrap.
One insider agreed that Reilly is very open to input. “Kevin is very accessible,” he said.
Can anyone get a show on the air without his approval?
“No, not really,” Reilly said. “Peter Rice and I have a very close working relationship. I seek Peter’s counsel a lot. I certainly inform him how everything’s going. Peter’s running the whole group right now. Peter and I have worked together for the last few years. But ultimately Peter also believes in making your own decisions and having autonomy and standing up for what you believe.”
Tough Decisions: Reilly has set out to dramatically change the way networks typically do business by dismantling the old September-May season. He has said pilot season is over for Fox, and that he will greenlight shows throughout the year. One of Fox’s biggest swings this year, the “24” relaunch “Live Another Day,” won’t debut until May.
Reilly tends to go for genre dramas, often with a tinge of sci-fi or fantasy, like this year’s successful “Sleepy Hollow.” The comedies he greenlights, like the hit “Glee” and Golden Globe-winning “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” tend to be sharp and youthful. Seth MacFarlane holds enough sway at the network to keep the struggling “Dads” on the air, and also to get Fox to take a chance on “Cosmos.” It isn’t exactly a hit, but does phenomenally well for a show about hard science. Putting it on primetime broadcast TV was a very ballsy move.
Hits: “Sleepy Hollow” was a success for Fox out of the gate this season, and “Glee,” which Reilly aired in 2010, became as much a social phenomenon as a show.
Misses: Reilly takes big swings that don’t always connect. “Terra Nova” lasted just one season, and “X Factor,” which was to be the heir apparent to “American Idol,” fizzled after three seasons.
NBC: BOB GREENBLATT AND JENNIFER SALKE
Titles: Greenblatt is the Chairman of NBC Entertainment. Salke is the President of NBC Entertainment.
Background: Though Greenblatt has the last word at NBC, he and Salke work closely together. (In a recent interview they finished one another’s sentences.) If one loves a project and the other doesn’t, they try to change each others’ minds. Greenblatt, who recently renewed his NBC contract through 2017, was appointed when Comcast completed its purchase of NBCUniversal in 2011. Asked if Comcast weighs in on greenlight decisions, he said no. “We obviously have a budget to manage, but it’s just –” he gestured to Salke and himself.
“She has influence definitely,” one insider said of Salke and Greenblatt’s relationship. “They worked together back in the day and he brought her over from Fox. She has a lot of influence on him.”
Quotes: “You obviously have to spend your money wisely,” Greenblatt said. “Every time you pick up something, it takes a chunk of your budget. It’s not like we just have an endless, ‘Oh, we can put that on and that on and that on.’ So there’s a lot of strategy about like, if we do this show that we like, we probably shouldn’t do this one. So we talk a lot about that.”
Adds Salke: “Of all the networks, there’s no bureaucracy. There’s no, like, oh, we’ve got to go through all these levels. Let me manage and sell this up, and then this person’s trying to stop it. And there’s agendas. There’s nothing like that. It’s just all about the material. Do we like it? Can we convince each other if one of us doesn’t?”
Tough Decisions: NBC wants to be known for quick decision making. How quick? We spoke to Greenblatt and Salke on a Sunday. They had just greenlit an Amy Poehler-produced pilot, “Old Soul,” starring Natasha Lyonne as a woman who tries to make sense of her life while working with seniors.
“If we love something — like this Amy Poehler script that we got on Friday — we both emailed the comedy team,” said Salke. “We got a first draft. We read it that night. We emailed Saturday.”
Poehler may be an exception to the rule: An individual who has represented production companies in the pilot process with NBC told TheWrap that the network’s process is “deliberate.” “They stretch it out more than others do,” he said.
NBC has a reputation for trying to keep talent in the family, and clearly fast-tracked Poehler, the star of “Parks and Recreation.”
“NBC has been like that since the Brandon Tartikoff days,” the insider said. “In town, NBC is the most overt about it. They keep their talent and they do a lot of deals to keep their talent happy.”
Hits: Greenblatt didn’t greenlight “The Voice,” a hit that arrived at NBC soon after he did. But he cleverly used the hit singing competition as a lead-in to other shows, like “Revolution” and “The Blacklist.” (“Revolution” slipped dramatically without “The Voice” as a lead-in, but NBC believes “The Blacklist” will fare better on its own.) One of Greenblatt’s babies, a “Sound of Music” live musical, was a surprise smash for NBC in December.
Many writers and other creatives see “The Blacklist” as NBC’s big turning point. It came up several times in our reporting of this story.
Misses: Another Greenblatt favorite, “Smash,” was canceled in its second season. And Michael J. Fox’s return to TV, “The Michael J. Fox Show,” couldn’t find an audience. NBC was once the most popular destination for Thursday night comedy, but now can’t touch CBS’s “Big Bang”-anchored lineup.
PBS: BETH HOPPE
Title: Chief Programming Executive and General Manager, General Audience Programming
Background: PBS doesn’t work like any other broadcast network, because it doesn’t face the same ratings pressures. It greenlights shows and specials at meetings led by Hoppe, who has held her position since 2012. She meets with just four other people as she decided what public television fans will see. They include Senior Director of Program Scheduling Shawn Halford, Senior Vice President of Programming and Business Affairs Mike Kelley, and two genre heads. Vice President of General Audience Programming Donald Thoms handles independent film and arts, while Vice President of Programming and Development Bill Gardner handles science, history and natural history. Another genre, news and public affairs, does not have a leader at the moment.
The meeting process is straightforward, but the way PBS acquires shows is not: Besides creating its own shows, it also picks up programming from stations all over the country, the most productive of which, Boston’s WGBH, is the home of “Nova,” and “Frontline.” WGBH’s “Masterpiece” co-produces “Downton Abbey,” PBS’s bigggest hit, with Britain’s Carnival Films. WNET in New York and WETA in Washington, D.C., are also top producers.
Quote: “We always like to say there’s many paths into PBS. We have a biweekly greenlighting meeting that includes me, my genre heads and the scheduler. And that’s it that have to say yes. We try to be pretty agile and get people answers quickly. We work also with our producing stations and they often actively develop projects and raise some of the money themselves. But once they put the package together it comes through here, too.”
Tough decisions: PBS doesn’t have to sell ads or suffer the viewership demands that networks do. That allows it to fulfill its mission of providing the most high-quality programming possible, without trying to appease the lowest-common denominator. But it still wants people to watch, because there’s no point in offering shows that no one sees. It also needs people to donate: Contrary to popular belief, only 15 percent of its $598 million annual budget comes from the federal government.
Hits: Hoppe was upfront about what’s worked out and what hasn’t. “I know everyone associates drama on PBS with Masterpiece’s ‘Downton Abbey,’ but I’m really happy to have greenlit bringing several other British dramas to our schedule including ‘Last Tango in Halifax’ and ‘Bletchley Circle.’ I’m most proud of ‘Call the Midwife,’ which has become a favorite with fans and critics alike,” she said. (The third season of “Midwife” premieres Sunday.)
Misses: “In 2012, we launched ‘Market Warriors’ as a companion to ‘Antiques Roadshow,'” Hoppe said. “The numbers were good, but the audience fell so sharply from its ‘Roadshow’ lead-in we ultimately decided not to renew it.”
THE CW: MARK PEDOWITZ
Background: Three years ago, Pedowitz was given the job of bringing The CW to “the next level” as its president. With nearly two decades of experience at ABC previously, Pedowitz was given some leeway in trying to figure out how to redefine the network, which targeted women 18-34. The CW has since expanded beyond soapy teen dramas to broader action and high-concept shows, more adult dramedy, and reality competitions.
Quote: CW is owned by CBS Corp. and Warner Bros., and declined to take part in this article because of CBS Corp.’s policy of not discussing its greenlight process. At the Television Critics Association press tour in January, Pedowitz said he considers The CW to be “a platform as well as a broadcaster.” The CW was an early adopter of On Demand and streaming video. With fewer time slots to fill than other broadcasters, Pedowitz orders fewer pilots.
Tough decisions: Perhaps because it is at the mercy of two parent companies, The CW has let some series stay on the air longer than they would have elsewhere. For example, CBS hand-me-down, the Sarah Michelle Gellar-starrer “Ringer,” and Warner Bros. TV’s “Sex and the City” prequel, “Carrie Diaries,” both outlived initial buzz and overstayed their welcome.
Hits: Streaming deals with Hulu and Netflix add to the network’s revenue and increase viewers. “Arrow” has been a success, fulfilling Pedowitz’s desire to broaden the networks’ audience by adding more men 18-34. It has also inspired the CW to move forward with another DC Comics-based pilot, “Flash.” In November, the CW beat NBC’s Thursday-night comedy lineup for the first time in the 18-49 demographic.
Misses: The CW, like all networks, recognizes that to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs. Pedowitz has greenlit several shows that he saw as probable hits, either because they came from producers of CW hits like “The Vampire Diaries” or because they beckoned back to the networks roots. (It was formed from the WB and UPN networks.) Its broken eggs include “The Secret Circle,” “Cult,” “Emily Owens M.D.,” “H8R” and “Breaking Pointe.”
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