4 TV Execs in Showdown: Fox's Reilly Calls Pilot Season 'Welfare State'; Sarandos' New Threat
This story first appeared in the Oct. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Is Netflix "freeloading" off the networks and cable carriers that help create a big chunk of its programming? That was the word FX Networks CEO John Landgraf used in a terse Sept. 20 Wall Street Journal interview explaining FX's move to enable more video-on-demand viewing of its shows on cable systems. VOD hurts Netflix, countered its chief content officer Ted Sarandos, who said he would pay less for shows if cable carriers planned on gobbling up all the so-called "binge viewers." With such fighting words being thrown around the cutthroat (and booming) television business, THR decided to invite four of its brightest and most articulate executives to sit down and duke it out. They didn't disappoint. Landgraf, 51, and Sarandos, 49, were joined by Showtime's David Nevins, 46, and Fox's Kevin Reilly, 51, in a spirited debate about the competition for top projects, what TV agents get wrong and the shows they'd most want to steal from one another.
All four of you now compete for the same projects. What's the most frustrating part of that rivalry?
John Landgraf: I really believe in the development process. Obviously, Ted's organization has a different point of view. There's a process of working on a script and working on a pilot -- sometimes actually retooling a pilot -- that's valuable for precision of tone. And it's difficult to do that right now because [with] any project that has merit, there is, at minimum, a pilot commitment and often a series commitment.
Ted Sarandos: I'm a fan of development, I just don't want to do it. (Laughs.)
David Nevins: Having the ability to go at the right pace is one of the things I like about my job, as opposed to when I was in the network business. I don't like artificial pressure to go faster and to make decisions before things are ready.
Kevin Reilly: I enjoy that they get to appreciate my misery.
Kevin, you've done a few straight-to-series orders lately. Why?
Reilly: We've been bound to these cycles for a long time in the broadcast side of the business. When I worked in cable [at FX], I loved getting off of it. It was a much better process creatively. It has a higher yield on the success side. You want to have the ability to course-correct if need be and not have to cast under duress. So my series orders have been predominantly to unwind us off the cycle in broadcast, but the marketplace is at such a fever pitch. I can't stand it. I get dragged into pitch meetings that I shouldn't be in because, "Oh, Nina [Tassler of CBS] was there and she blew air-kisses; Paul [Lee of ABC] sent flowers; Bob [Greenblatt of NBC] is vacuuming their rugs." It gets that silly, but then people start throwing money, and there's nothing else to do. It starts to pervert the process when there's too much money involved too early and everyone makes false promises that they can't deliver.
How much of your feelings are directed at Netflix?
Landgraf: None of us is implicating Netflix in that because the truth of the matter is, there are now 48 channels, at last count, making scripted original series. So it's the whole ecosystem that's creating it. Netflix is a part of it, but so are we.
Sarandos: People get wrapped up in the cost of a show and say we pay a lot for a show. But I don't have the development infrastructure overhead, and I'm not [making] 50 or 60 pilots to do it. If you took all that money out and put it on the screen -- which is what we did with House of Cards -- then we're probably not that different.
What's the one show that got away for each of you?
Landgraf: Easy. Breaking Bad.
Reilly: I was given the script of Homeland by Howard [Gordon] because of our relationship with 24, and I read it and thought it was really good, but it felt like a cable show. I still wrestle with it. It would not be our highest-rated show, but I really wish I had it.
Sarandos: True Detective [upcoming] on HBO is a show that I would have loved to have. It's one of the best-written projects I've seen.
Were you in that bidding process?
Sarandos: For a second.
Nevins: I was, too. I actually thought I was going to get it, and in the end [HBO] offered a big check and an overall deal for the writer.
Ted, how long can Netflix go without releasing any ratings information?
Reilly: This is a Ted Sarandos roast, right? Where's Jeff Ross? (Laughs.)
Sarandos: I don't know. Honestly, at some point, someone will just spend a ton of money getting the answer. Because you can, right? Somebody could sample 2,000 people, spend a million dollars and get the data. It's a question of how valuable the answer is to you guys. It's not to me.
Nevins: If John puts in 10 bucks, I put in 10 bucks, we get the Food Channel to put in 10 bucks, we can put together a pool. … Question: Would we understand it if you gave it to us?
Sarandos: I don't think so …
Reilly: I love my job, but I'd really love my job if I didn't have to live and die by ratings every day. But we're in a business where perception becomes reality. Advertisers can wake up, and they're watching Netflix and saying, "God, you know, Orange Is the New Black. Everyone's watching that!" You get these sweeping generalizations. … So we really have to try to get some uniform metric, where you put it in perspective.
Landgraf: There's no question in my mind that [Orange] is a very successful show. … The only thing that gets confusing is that perception is often reality, and we don't know the difference between perception and reality.
Sarandos: I buy programming from all these guys, so if a show on Netflix is being watched more than a show on FX, that's bad for FX and not particularly great for Netflix. I want your shows to be successful [and more episodes to be made], so I can buy more of your shows.