NBC Unscripted Chief Telegdy: Grilled

On the competition: “If I could change anything, it would be to disconnect cable”

Last Updated: March 1, 2010 @ 1:36 PM

Now that the Olympics are over, the real games are about to begin at NBC. The Peacock begins yet another campaign to rebuild primetime this week — and helping lead the battle is unscripted chief Paul Telegdy. 

On the job for a little over a year now,  the former BBC Worldwide America executive is about to take the wraps off his biggest slate of programming yet– an unscripted comedy show from Jerry Seinfeld ("The Marriage Ref"), a genealogy-themed hour from Lisa Kudrow ("Who Do You Think You Are") and a new family-friendly game show ("Minute to Win It").

Telegdy recently agreed to be Grilled by TheWrap about the fast-changing reality landscape, why the coming changes to "American Idol" could be an opportunity for competitors — and his secret passion for a certain VH1 show.

The good thing about being at NBC right now is that you’ve got lots of real estate. You have every shot in the world to find a hit. What are you doing to take advantage of that?

Clearly what NBC needs at the moment is a mix of stability and innovation. In my area, post- Olympics, we’re responsible for about seven hours a week … Arguably, the three new things that we’re trying are new whichever way you look at them.

We’re also hunkered down around the solid return of our franchises, "The Biggest Loser" and "Celebrity Apprentice." 

Has your budget gone up this year? Will you have more at-bats in 2010, particularly post-Jay in prime?

You know (NBC U Television Entertainment chairman) Jeff Gaspin’s mantra is sort of stability and strategic decision-making rather than a particular haste to try new stuff. We’ve got ample resources (for) research and development … and shows that demand to be on the air will get on the air. The long-term has to be one of some big swings … with that daring-to-fail attitude.

You had some success last December with "The Sing Off." Will there be another season?

We’ll be bringing "Sing Off" back. We don’t know when. But we believe we’ve found a little gem, one we can buff up and make better.

After a few years of no new reality hits, it looks like CBS has found one with "Undercover Boss." That has to be encouraging as you prepare to launch three new shows.

Hopefully we’re in a cycle where innovation will be rewarded by audiences. There will continue be some successes but failures. But "Undercover Boss" can only be called a hit any way you put it. We’re hopeful people are looking for new stuff.

Reality was in a down part of the cycle. (Now) there’s a lot of change on the horizon. You’ve got the "Idol" to "X-Factor" transition, which is as inevitable as anything.  That will bring about a change, and a version of instability to the market.

Do you think the coming changes to "Idol" give other networks a chance to jump in with new performance competition series?

I don’t think that subgenre is dead creatively. Performance … is something that just doesn’t go away. Whether it’s watching a couple dance at a wedding or karaoke night, people have performance inside them … We will not stop developing in the area of singing and dancing. I do think there’s opportunity. And there are other shows in music and dance that we will want to do.

There’s been some noise about Fox’s "Our Little Genius," which was shelved due to production irregularities. Obviously, you can’t comment on the specifics of that situation. But you’ve got "Minute to Win It"– do you worry about producers on game shows trying to incorporate too much reality-style personal drama into competition?

I don’t think that there’s something systemically wrong. We absolutely abide — beyond abide — with FCC regulation.  Our standards and practices people are there every single second that we (film) on anything that’s governed by regulation. There’s scrutiny on every level. But I just don’t think there’s a whole group of people in the business trying to deceive audiences or kind of create a reality that isn’t there. Certainly not at our network.

What’s your approach to programming and production of programs? You’re sort of the executive producer of all NBC reality shows.

On existing franchises, you try to take a light touch, and try not get in the way of top showrunners who’ve made the show for many years. If you see something you don’t like, you damn well put your hand up and say it, but I’m not there to micromanage.

On new shows, the hallmark of (NBC’s three newcomers) is that they’ve been very long in both development and execution. We’ve been trying to slow the process down and bring method — not rushing, and taking our time to get things right.

Is there a Telegdy production style?

I’d sound a bit high and mighty if I were to say there’s a Telegdy style. What I think there is,  is an an enthusiasm to try new things and an enthusiasm to embrace the things that are working. I don’t think I make change for change’s sake.

I do have a sense of mischief, though, and that sometimes manifests itself in some of the things we’re going to be trying. 

A lot of networks seem to be moving away from going straight to series on reality shows and are instead piloting formats, mirroring standard practice in the scripted world. Is this a good thing? 

If we can pilot something, there’s a very good argument for doing it. Look, "Undercover Boss" was piloted, and then episodes were ordered.  If it’s self-contained format, it makes perfect sense to see if it can work.

But, you can’t pilot a big story arc … We can do pilots. But that doesn’t stop us from taking certain parts out of our trousers and taking a big plunge on a big show. You’re going to have to do that, too.

What’s your pet peeve about reality TV right now?

My pet peeve is the amount of competition of extraordinary quality from our competitors in cable. Sometimes when I’m channel hopping at the start of prime-time, I’m like, "Oh, my gosh." Because I’ll tell you what: The quality distinction between broadcast and cable that was there even five years ago has been completely eradicated.

So if I could change anything it would be to disconnect the cable stations. They’re doing great work.

Is there a reality show on another network you consider a guilty pleasure? I know you’re all about the "Jersey Shore."

This is so embarrassing.  But I love "Tool Academy" on VH1. It’s classic. That’s my sense of silliness and fun there. It really is great comedy and very well-executed.

And yes, I do keep up with The Sitch and Pauly D and Snooki. Once again, a reality show has been the thing that captures the pop culture zeitgeist. It shows the power of the work we can do we we do it right.