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"Forgive the bags under my eyes, I haven’t gotten much sleep,” warns Paul Telegdy as a photographer begins snapping pictures of the NBC reality chief.
It’s 3 p.m. on a Monday in late April, and the British transplant is masking his exhaustion with the kind of quips that make a nearby publicist nervous. After a morning of talent meetings with Train lead singer Patrick Monahan and Discovery castoff Bear Grylls about opportunities at the network, he heads over to nearby Warner Bros., where his juggernaut The Voice is filming.
If Telegdy, 41, was worried about his job before The Voice premiered in spring 2011, he needn’t be now. With NBC’s scripted fare landing with a thud across the network’s schedule, Telegdy’s offerings from Voice to America’s Got Talent have given his Comcast bosses something worth bragging about: The star-studded singing competition, which will be counted on for fall and spring installments next season, averaged an impressive 6 rating among the crucial 18-to-49 demographic and, with a Super Bowl boost, nearly 16 million viewers overall for its Monday-night performance show; Got Talent delivered its highest-rated cycle ever in the summer, extending its reign as the No. 1 most-watched summer series for a sixth consecutive year.
So Telegdy, a holdover from the Ben Silverman era at NBC, who took on oversight of the network’s late-night division in late 2011, continues to get more rope. Up next on his slate is a celebrity military challenge series from Mark Burnett and Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, a dating show from erstwhile Desperate Housewives vixen Eva Longoria and a game show from Got Talent judge Howie Mandel. But before any of them hit the air, he’ll reboot dating challenge Love in the Wild with ’90s heartthrob Jenny McCarthy, who joins NBC’s other unscripted heavyweights Betty White (Off Their Rockers), Donald Trump (The Apprentice) and Jessica Simpson (Fashion Star).
On this day, as Telegdy kills time between Voice’s dress rehearsal and live show, the engaged father of two young girls grows giddy at the mention of Howard Stern’s addition to the judges table at Got Talent, which bowed May 14. He takes particular delight in waxing on about Stern’s humor, consistency and intelligence.
“When I worked at the BBC, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, this place is going to be full of eggheads looking to have incredibly intelligent conversations about the nitty-gritty of the business,’ and of course, I found there’s a fair share of dingbats in any company,” he says. “The same is true of the business here; there aren’t that many frighteningly bright people. Howard Stern is frighteningly bright.” Telegdy adds that he hasn’t had to give a single note on content to the famously raunchy shock-jock, whom his network is paying roughly $15 million for the season.
But with that mounting enthusiasm comes sky-high expectations. “We’d be lying if we said we didn’t have interrupted sleep thinking about how it will do,” he says of the Got Talent reboot, with his protege Meredith Ahr, senior vp alternative programming and development, half-jokingly noting she often has to remind him that his job is fun.
Telegdy has been a TV fanatic for as long as he can remember. “I was the child that was permanently being dragged away from the TV by parents,” he recalls of his European childhood. (His Hungarian chemical engineer father and British actress-turned-teacher mother moved Telegdy to five different countries before he was 18; he added three more as an adult.) After earning a degree in Korean and Japanese from the University of London -- “A professor sold me on the basis that it would make me of value in the investment banking world, which is what the calling was if you were a well-educated, slightly greedy young man,” he says of a career path he ultimately passed on -- Telegdy took a job at a small London-based TV packaging and distribution company. He rose quickly and landed a job at the BBC, which he likens to a “prestigious finishing school for anyone looking to start a career in television.” By 2004, Telegdy was relocated to the U.S., where he sold such projects as HBO’s Extras and ABC’s Dancing With the Stars before being lured to NBC four years later.
To hear him tell it, that decade-plus on the other side of the pitch process has made him a better buyer -- or at least a better communicator. “Selling in this town can be a brutal experience,” he acknowledges, adding that those peddling to NBC benefit, in part, because he lacks the impenetrable poker face he recalls most U.S. television executives possessing. “I have no game face whatsoever,” he continues, chuckling as he comments on his own transparency. “When I’m happy, my tail is wagging; when I’m angry, my eyes are bulging.”
At a quarter to four, that metaphoric tail is on display as Telegdy makes his way to an area informally known as the celebrity trailer park, a preshow home to Voice host Carson Daly and coaches Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton. He’s grown close to the quintet, as The Voice has boosted their careers as much as his own.
After a light knock, he goes bounding into Daly’s trailer, where he’s greeted by Shelton, Daly and several of Daly’s relatives. The trio trade barbs, many of them at Telegdy’s expense, before the executive bear-hugs both and excuses himself from the cramped space. He fist-bumps a member of Green’s entourage— “Love this guy,” the larger man outfitted in black sweats says of a still-grinning Telegdy — on his way back to the set. As showtime approaches, Telegdy finds Burnett, producer of Voice, and the two open the door to Stage 15. It’s time for another live show.