Spring 2013

Talk TV 

President of NBC Entertainment Jennifer Salke reflects on the precarious state of network television, the challenge of creating hit shows, and building greater diversity for directors.

1. You’re one of the most prominent female executives working in television today. Do you feel there is starting to be significant change in hiring women and minorities as directors in TV?

I really do. I think it’s just across the board [in society] and extends outside of our own company. The way diversity is approached now, I feel, is so different. You make decisions based on talent, and look for as much diversity as you can. But it never feels like token decisions to check off boxes; it just feels organic. It’s no longer all the white, 40-year-old, comedy writers coming in to pitch to all white people. When we look at the list of directors, we strive to have as many women directors as possible, but we would look at them all as individuals and we wouldn’t hire somebody we didn’t think was talented just to fill a quota. It’s not necessary; there are a lot of talented people out there. In a business where there’s a high, high degree of failure and we’re all scrapping to find a 34-year-old audience that doesn’t watch network television, you really have nothing to lose to not bring in fresh voices who have different points of view and can get out of the old school. It’s not like ‘let’s go to the same ten directors on that list.’ We like to think we’re at the forefront of that for networks.

2. When someone’s already working on a show, say as an AD, how do you know when they’re ready to make the leap to director?

I really defer to the producers on that. When the producers come to me and say, ‘this person is ready,’ I have no reason not to believe them. In some ways, they’re also guaranteeing that they’re going to support that person. So it’s not as risky when they’re coming from within, rather than just hiring a new director who’s an outsider to the show. There’s already a rapport and a trust; you know the collaboration is going to be more efficient than it would be if the people have all just met or hardly know each other.

3. The director-producer role has become more prominent. Do you see that trend continuing?

I do. I find the executive producer-director role is really critical. Directors are key pieces of our strategy for which pilots and series move forward. I think it really helps to define a tone and a direction right up front; the more specific and clear these visions can be, the better off you are. When we bring someone in early in the process, it’s really been great for us. So when we’re talking about creative material, we think of it in terms of ‘wouldn’t this be great?’ And we see it through the prism of, say, the Russo Brothers, or Marc Buckland, or Jon Favreau, who did Revolution and is now doing About a Boy for us, or Todd Holland, who has a deal with us. There’s nothing we love more than developing ongoing relationships with directors, and they can come from a variety of backgrounds.

4. Network television still offers the largest audience and the most effective monetization. Do you see the broadcast model continuing as it is today?

I really don’t see how it can sustain itself. We’re all talking about ratings that a few years ago we would have thought were abject failures, but now we’re calling moderate successes. It’s going to be a continual dwindling down of the audience and advertising revenue. I don’t see how we can not figure out another way to expand that revenue source. The other thing is, I came from 20th Century Fox running that creative area, where we had a and a and they’re out of the park hits. It’s possible. You just have to do something that’s great. It has to be undeniable and excellent; if it were easy, the industry wouldn’t be in this situation.

5. What kind of situation is the industry in?

It’s in a situation where, yes, there are some hit shows, but the bulk of the entire schedule probably isn’t as interesting as it could be for people who are looking for entertainment on television. So there’s flipping around, and if something doesn’t compel you to have to watch it live, why are you going to watch it? If you talk to kids about it, or even 20 year olds, they’ll tell you they watch certain things that are mostly on cable as appointment viewing for them. They’ll watch The Voice and American Idol and some live reality shows like that, but they’re not watching network television.

6. So what might the business model look like in the future?

For us, we’re already starting to try and change it a little bit. I do think people show up for stars. Stepping forward and committing to 22 episodes of a show like we did with Michael J. Fox, sight unseen, is the kind of decision we would continue to make. On the other hand, we’re looking at limited series and international models you can attract stars with; stars that people of all ages who normally aren’t watching network TV will tune in for. But these stars aren’t going to sign on for 22 episodes for seven years of their life, so we’re trying to look at it creatively: can we get someone great for this role for three years who really wants to generate their own material and be open to that too in the deal making? We don’t have the luxury of stability in our schedule right now, so we have to find a way to make these things attractive to actors, and it can only be about the work and about controlling the amount of time you’re asking them to spend.

7. How does the fragmentation of the market affect creative decisions and what kind of programming you might pursue?

For me, the bar’s really high on originality. The shows I was involved with [at 20th] that broke through, did so because the idea was incredibly original. I think that still has to be the main ingredient. The multi-camera business can be a bonanza if you can build a hit. But in order to draw audiences to the network right now, we have to bring something to the table that they can’t get anywhere else. Something that starts a conversation with the audience and breaks through to the zeitgeist in a way that demands, at least, curiosity if not commitment. If you don’t do something that breaks through, people will go to other outlets.

8. Do you think part of the solution is making your shows available on other platforms with shorter windows?

I think that’s really helpful, and it also serves another purpose: The more buzz you can create about something that actually has the goods creatively, the better off you’ll be. Buzz and word of mouth can only benefit the live viewing, so I’m a huge fan of that. Every time we’re coming up on a launch, I say, ‘Let’s get it out there early. Can we get two episodes out? Three? Can we put it out in more places?’ Because if you can’t be part of the conversation, no one is going [to notice] and if you have limited on-air potential to market things, there’s no better way to create that kind of conversation.

9. Do you expect to see more original programming from companies like Netflix?

Well, it’s interesting and we’re watching how is doing. You can’t see the numbers because it’s not part of the Nielsen reporting system. But again I think that model is a huge draw for talent, and when we’re sitting down and talking to talent agents all over the city about stars who could move to television, they’re first going to look at cable and Netflix. So we have to convince them that we have the best material so that they’ll make a decision to take a chance on network, because they’re passionate about what we’re doing.

10. There has been a lot of discussion recently of violence in film and television. How has NBC been addressing this?

Our bread and butter is not in violent shows. Obviously, we have some procedurals that have some violence in them. But for us, I think we try not to put too many reins on creative people if there’s a vision and a message and a story that involves violence. But if you look across the board at our schedule, we don’t have a lot of violence on the air, so it hasn’t been a real hot button issue over here. To be honest, I think there is an audience that wants the envelope pushed for them. I don’t think [violence] has to be gratuitous, but as I said before, you have to be able to grab people by the shoulders and say, ‘you have to watch this tonight.’ And I just don’t think that’s going to happen if we put too many reins on creative people. If there’s a vision that incorporates violence, it’s case by case. If it’s something that we love creatively, then we will look to support those creators.

10 Questions

Question and answer sessions with prominent figures outside the Guild about current creative and business issues.

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