22 Top Network Execs Reveal the Show They Really Want, Agent Pet Peeves and Most Memorable Pitches
TV chiefs open to up THR about the shows that got away, the trends they wish would end and what they dislike about the development process.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The new show you wish was yours?
KENT ALTERMAN, COMEDY CENTRAL: Fox's Mulaney.
SARAH BARNETT, SUNDANCE: I am intrigued by Amazon's Jill Soloway series Transparent. It does a little bit of what we try to do, which is zig when they zag — not be so much about spectacle, as much as we love all that stuff, just be about people, relationships and really sharp observations of being human.
MATT CHERNISS, WGN AMERICA: FX's The Strain.
SUSANNE DANIELS, MTV: Finding Carter is ... oh wait, that's mine. I still want The Voice and Survivor.
DAVE HOWE, SYFY: Extant. We really wanted it on Syfy.
JOHN LANDGRAF, FX NETS: Extant. I think it would have been a very different show on FX than it is on CBS, less broad but maybe weirder and more specific.
MICHAEL LOMBARDO, HBO/CINEMAX: At Cinemax, we made a pitch to get The Strain. We lost it [to FX], but it would have been a great show for Cinemax.
DAVID McKILLOP, A&E: HBO's Silicon Valley in the scripted space would have been the one that I think is kind of cool. It's smart and different, and I should have thought of that myself.
MARK PEDOWITZ, THE CW: CBS' Scorpion. It's male-driven, yet there is a sensibility that is accessible to females.
PERRY SIMON, BBC AMERICA: Fargo. Except it'd be Fargo with British accents instead of the ones up there in the cold. It's an absolutely brilliant show.
NINA TASSLER, CBS: If I could, The Flash. I love that show.
What's missing from your schedule?
ALTERMAN: More "me" time.
CHERNISS: A series written and directed by Christopher Nolan.
DANIELS: A talk show for millennials and a live show.
DIRK HOOGSTRA, HISTORY/H2: It's now more than ever hard to find a reality hit. But what's even harder is a new reality hit that repeats well, because people in general, with so much original content today, don't need to watch repeats, and that's essentially what cable was built on.
HOWE: A sci-fi fantasy classic miniseries based on a book franchise.
DAVID NEVINS, SHOWTIME: I would like to have a show that people say is the funniest show on television, and I do not have that. I was close [with Philip Seymour Hoffman's Happyish].
ROB SHARENOW, LIFETIME: I'd take a repeatable reality format or two.
TASSLER: A soap opera.
MICHAEL WRIGHT, TNT/TBS/TCM: More genre fare.
ALTERMAN: The Internet. I mean, really, how long can it last?
TOM ASCHEIM, ABC FAMILY: I think we're going to have to confront a mobile television world. We don't know how to manage it, measure it, monetize it yet as an industry.
CHARLIE COLLIER, AMC: The instant sportslike analysis of "winners" and "losers" based on how many people watched a show on one night or what they thought of an episode or two. No one I follow reads one chapter of a novel and judges the whole book.
MARC JURIS, WE TV: Frenzied buying. This illusion that every pitch has three offers already, whether it's complete or not. You're being forced through fear to commit to things because everyone is buying everything.
LANDGRAF: Shopping for categories in the Emmy submissions and nominations. We did fine, but we did not shop for better categories. We put them where we thought they were the most appropriate.
McKILLOP: There's just way too much derivative programming and not enough original thinking.
NEVINS: The arms race when it comes to awards campaigning.
PEDOWITZ: The oversaturation of docushows and people's need for the Marshall McLuhan [theory of] 15 minutes of fame. Not everyone is that interesting.
TASSLER: Everybody making victory claims, and then there's the asterisk and you go down and look at the small print. You cannot escape that.
WRIGHT: Antiheroes as the "go-to" protagonist. When Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey emerged, they were a great reaction away from the overplayed earnest hero of broadcast television at the time -- but now the antihero itself is a little overplayed, isn't it?
I wish that agents would stop …
ABBOTT: Not speaking to their clients before they either decline a deal or make a demand.
ALTERMAN: Only being about the art all the time. This is a business after all.
CHERNISS: You can't stop agents. You can only hope to contain them.
DANIELS: Pretending they don't know things I know they know.
HOWE: Taking me to lunch at steakhouses.
JURIS: Pretending they watch WE tv morning, noon and night.
LOMBARDO: Thinking the best way to maximize the ability to sell something is to package it up with every element possible before really having the idea fully developed on its own.
CHRIS McCUMBER, USA: Calling me before I get the ratings to ask me if I'm picking up their client's show.
McKILLOP: Trying to increase the cost per hour of reality television. We're reaching threshold levels.
EILEEN O'NEILL, DISCOVERY NETS: Pitching shows that they wouldn't watch themselves.
TASSLER: Calling me and telling me that their client's pilot is the best thing they've ever seen.
My Industry role model is …
ASCHEIM: Geraldine Laybourne, the first person I worked with at Nickelodeon. She was an inspiring leader. She helped all of us feel like we were on a mission every day and somehow still made great business.
DANIELS: Nina Tassler. No one does it better.
LOMBARDO: I'm in awe of Leslie Moonves and his ability to both macromanage a large company and to still have his finger on the pulse of every casting and major creative decision on his networks. His consistency over time is undeniable.
NEVINS: Ron Howard for his love of storytelling and ability to constantly reinvent himself. Brian Grazer for his ability to follow his curiosity. And Norman Lear for his feel for the zeitgeist and ability to challenge accepted norms.
O'NEILL: [President of Bravo and Oxygen Media] Frances Berwick. She's been lauded for the way she conducts business and her success. I'm definitely a fan.
SIMON: Brandon Tartikoff because he more than anyone understood the concept of zagging when everyone else is zigging. He was the master of it, which often meant going back and being retro, but in a way that people were ready for. When he did The Cosby Show, it's because everybody thought that family sitcoms were dead. He found the right one and the right way to do it.
WRIGHT: Brandon Tartikoff, and then right behind him, Les Moonves. I got the chance to work for Les, and to this day, I think he's the most brilliant TV mind I've ever worked with because he knew what he wanted. The biggest mistake you can make in this business is to be vague.
What's the biggest misconception about your network?
ABBOTT: We have 50 original movies, four original series and events. There's a sense that we only acquire repeat programming.
ALTERMAN: That The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are the only smart shows on our network and that HBO and FX are the only networks that allow creative freedom.
BARNETT: That Robert Redford is not still involved.
CHERNISS: That we are a local Chicago station, not a national cable network.
COLLIER: We don't own the theater chain, and I can't get you free Junior Mints.
HOOGSTRA: I'll occasionally tell people where I work, and they'll go, "Oh, I love documentaries." We haven't made a documentary in eight or nine years!
HOWE: That we're for nerdy guys.
JURIS: That it's a network for women.
LOMBARDO: That somehow we're full up. You know what, we always have room for another good show.
McCUMBER: That USA is just going dark.
NEVINS: I feel like we're fairly well understood.
SHARENOW: That it only caters to a specific type of older woman. One of our nights of programming this year had a median age of 28 years old!
TASSLER: That we're your grandfather's network. It ain't the case.
What was the hardest conversation you've had to have in the past year?
ABBOTT: Dealing with showrunners who might not understand our brand or what our audience expects.
HOOGSTRA: A conversation I had recently with my boss regarding a scripted project that we're working on now. It was about budget.
HOWE: Passing on shows that you really believed in that haven't worked. Alphas was a show I really believed in that we didn't get to season three. It was a really tough call, but the way you soften it is that you know you've explored all avenues, scheduling, writing, talent.
LOMBARDO: Passing on scripts is one thing, passing on a pilot after people have put that kind of work and energy into it and is good but just not right for us at the time is really one of life's more unpleasant tasks.
MCKILLOP: I had to cancel a scripted show [Those Who Kill] that we all believed in. That was the hardest conversation I've had to this day because I didn't under- stand why it didn't connect with audiences. That made that conversation that much more difficult.
O'NEILL: For me, it's always letting anyone go from the staff. It's so personal, and it's often difficult circumstances. That's the most difficult thing any of us do as leaders and managers in our roles.
SHARENOW: When I had to tell my daughters that Dance Moms wouldn't be back on the air for two months after the last season finale.
If you could change one thing about the development process, it would be …
CHRIS ALBRECHT, STARZ: That every script is as good as the [original] pitch.
ALTERMAN: Nothing. I focus-tested the process, and turns out it's perfect.
ASCHEIM: I wish it was faster.
BARNETT: All the time and money in the world.
HOOGSTRA: Get us in earlier, give us loglines, we'll develop with you.
HOWE: To slow it down.
JURIS: People come in, and they're confused between an idea and a show. An idea is not a show.
LOMBARDO: Having to say no. It's always good to be able to give people good news, but most of the job is finding a nice way of saying no to people who have done a good job and worked hard on something.
McCUMBER: There's this sense of, "You've got to make a massive financial commitment now or it's going out the door." It's almost like that leads to a speculative frenzy, the same way that the real estate market ended up in speculative frenzy.
McKILLOP: Studio originality. We're getting too many of the same types of pitches and not getting a lot of volume.
O'NEILL: More money available so that people can spend more time in the field developing and finding characters.
SHARENOW: There's an incredible rush to bring things to market, so the development process often gets cut short. Sometimes the best shows take real development. I'm trying to let things bake more fully.
TASSLER: I wouldn't change anything about the process.
WRIGHT: To have it truly be on a year-round "as needed" basis, so we're not all chasing the same actors and directors and writers at the exact same time every year.
What was your most memorable pitch?
ALBRECHT: When Larry David pitched Curb Your Enthusiasm while I was running HBO. The whole pitch was about why we shouldn't pick up the show.
ALTERMAN: T.J. Miller set himself on fire at the end of a pitch to show his passion for the project.
CHERNISS: Nip/Tuck. The pitch took five minutes, was simple and bold, and by the end of it, you knew, if executed, it could be something special.
HOOGSTRA: We're in development on a World War II project that came to us from Michael Lynne, who brought us a book called The Liberator. It was one of those things where I had to stop him several times and say, "Wait, this can't be true."
LANDGRAF: Fargo was an incredible pitch because it seemed impossible. If you really laid it out, it was, "OK, pitch a new movie that's longer, has more characters, is more complicated, is surprising enough to sustain 10 hours, has none of the original stories or characters from the original movie and is just as good." It was pretty evident from hearing that pitch that Noah Hawley got the essence of the Coen brothers.
O'NEILL: Twenty years ago in our corporate headquarters, I was asked to come in and listen to the Alien Autopsy presentation, complete with footage. I remember sitting there watching and saying, "Wow, my job is just crazy." Having the footage and an unbelievably passionate and believing producer was epic.
PEDOWITZ: It happened when I was with ABC Studios. Someone pitched me the idea of having prisoners escape from Rikers Island -- for real.
SIMON: Back in my NBC days, a guy came in and seriously pitched a sitcom about a woman who learns that the curtains in her home were aliens. I remember looking around the room for the hidden camera, thinking I was being punked.
WRIGHT: When I was back at CBS, I had this guy come in with a guitar and pitch his entire TV movie to me while singing. I was both horrified and fascinated. I didn't buy it.