Jennifer Salke: NBC's Comeback, 'Community's' Future and When Showrunners Attack (Q&A)
The entertainment chief opens up about Chevy Chase's exit, managing "roller-coaster" talent and the fallout from canceling Dane Cook's comedy before it aired.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 10, 2013, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
After nine years at 20th Century Fox TV, where she played a large part in the success of Glee, New Girl and Modern Family, Jennifer Salke joined long-ailing NBC as president of entertainment in July 2011. A year and a half later, she and entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt can claim a 20 percent uptick in total viewers and, more significantly, a shift in status from the No. 4 network to the No. 1 network among the advertiser-beloved 18-to-49 set, thanks in large part to Sunday Night Football, The Voice and Revolution. Looking ahead, the woman who got her start at Aaron Spelling Productions is eager to continue developing risky ideas from larger-than-life creators in the mold of Ryan Murphy (The New Normal) or Bryan Fuller (Hannibal). Seated in her stylishly decorated corner office on NBC's Burbank lot in early December, Salke, 48, who has three children with her husband, Fox 21 president Bert Salke, opened up about her plans to broaden NBC's comedy brand, why Dane Cook's comedy Next Caller was canceled before it aired and the talent with whom she'd like to be in business.
The Hollywood Reporter: How much do you worry about January, when NBC no longer has The Voice and football?
Jennifer Salke: We worry about it a lot. The Voice was this major gift, and I don't take that for granted. I was at Fox when we had to build off of American Idol -- that was the linchpin. It's not unlike this situation. We need The Voice to sustain, and when it goes off the air, and American Idol comes on, there's going to be a major shift in what's been happening.
THR: You're taking your biggest scripted hit, J.J. Abrams' Revolution, off the schedule until Voice returns in March. How risky is that?
Salke: It's very tempting to take The Voice and use it also to launch other things, but we're realists. We all work in this business, and we see what the failure rate is. When you have a show that's working the way Revolution seems to be working, you've got to do everything to protect that. It's just too fickle of a marketplace. And with Bob coming from cable [Greenblatt was president of entertainment at Showtime], there's this belief that a passionate core fan that loves a show will wait for it.
THR: You spent many years as a seller at 20th TV. Now you're on the buyer side. What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
Salke: I took a lot of risks creatively later in my career at 20th and was encouraged to do so. But I wish that early on I had been even more out there creatively, because I think if there'd been more original ideas in the pipeline for the past 10 years, the TV industry might not be in quite the predicament it's in right now.
THR: Why is broadcast comedy struggling this year?
Salke: Well, we'd argue Go On is doing really well for us. But you've had this Tuesday night battleground, and I think many of those shows just cannibalized each other. It's hard. There were some really great shows that were developed, but it just shows you that these things have to be great.
THR: You've said you want to change NBC's brand of comedy. How?
Salke: We've talked about the idea of going broader. It doesn't mean going broad. We're trying to increase the ratings. That's our job. We have these shows in 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation and Community that we love. They're super sophisticated, and they attract a very upscale audience, but we need to expand beyond that.
THR: Animal Practice was designed to be broader. Why didn't that work?
Salke: With the veterinary setting and the ensemble, it felt like a show families could sit down and love because we really loved it. Clearly they didn't. None of us could really figure it out, because everybody in any kind of testing or research that we did was attracted to the animal thing. Maybe it didn't make an emotional connection with people.
THR: How long do you intend to stick with Community, which is both narrow and adored?
Salke: There's no way to deny that the show is loved by many, many people who aren't measured by Nielsen. So the giant question on everybody's mind is how do we go about getting an accurate representation of who's actually watching all of these shows when you have entire generations of people who do not watch any live television.
THR: Does it live beyond this season with those ratings?
Salke: Well, first of all, any show that’s doing okay that we love we will try to support as much as we can. But there are more things that go into that decision. For instance, it depends on what’s happening financially with the show. We have shows that we love that lose tons of money. So those factors obviously come into the equation.
THR: Chevy Chase has left the show. Why?
Salke: I think that clearly there were a lot of problems there that were constantly coming up with him swirling around the epicenter. Eventually it just kind of wore itself out with everybody.
THR: As you look around the landscape, who are the voices that you'd like on NBC?
Salke: I love [New Girl creator] Liz Meriwether. I think [Don't Trust the B-- in Apt. 23 creator] Nahnatchka Khan is an original thinker. I love [The Astronaut's Wife writer-director] Rand Ravich. I believe there's a hit show in him. I like [Homeland director] Michael Cuesta. I developed one of my favorite pilots that never went forward with him [a zombie drama] called Babylon Fields. Kevin Williamson is another creator I love. It'll be interesting to see what happens with The Following, which is a pilot I loved. I heard that pitch, but we already had made the deal for Hannibal, so it was sort of torturous, because it's this kind of noisy, edge-of-your-seat sort of thriller that I really like.
THR: What's the best pitch you've sat through?
Salke: Revolution was a really great pitch. We were on the 14th floor with J.J. It was rush hour and crazy outside on the freeway below. He's like, "Look out the window and imagine if everything here stopped." We're all so dependent on technology in our lives, and so it started this whole conversation that had nothing to do with the actual nuts and bolts of a pitch. How would we get to the kids' school? How would we find each other? What would we do? There was a wish fulfillment piece to it too.
THR: What's the one show you wish was on your network?
Salke: I wish the mother lode, Modern Family, was my show. I have a soft spot for New Girl, and I wish we had it. There's a way to turn up and dial down the quirkiness of that show depending on how broad you want to make it. I think it would go well with The New Normal.
THR: Between Community's Dan Harmon, Smash's Theresa Rebeck and Next Caller's Stephen Falk, you have a number of former showrunners who have publicly criticized the network. How do you react?
Salke: I thought Stephen's [blog post about his show getting canceled before it aired] was fine. These are creative people and they're entitled to their opinions. Some of them rely on a brand and a following, and I guess it would be inauthentic of them not to comment on major shifts in their life to their base, which they probably need to be more loyal to than they do to me.
THR: That's very mature.
Salke: Obviously, I can't have this relationship with everybody, but my hope is that you have a close enough relationship with those people that you're working with so that when it comes down to things like this, they're not going to do that. This often happens when it's just a dysfunctional relationship that has gone too far. Stephen's thing was reasonable. I don't know what PR thought of it, but I read it and I thought the guy had the rug pulled out from under him, which is true. Things were happening on that show that weren't in line with what we were hoping creatively would be happening. I tried to talk to him a couple times, but it was not a show that was on my front burner, and he felt a need to vent. Sure, I wish I'd had the conversation with him. As for Dan Harmon, I hardly know him. I got here and that whole situation was going on, and again, not my front burner.
THR: What's the key to managing these large personalities, be it a Dan Harmon, a Ryan Murphy or a Bryan Fuller?
Salke: The hardest part about it is just time management, because they require my attention. I'm passionate about someone like Ryan as a creator and as a friend, so it's my pleasure. But artists in general who I bring in close to me tend to be the kind of passionate, roller coaster artists, because I think I just like people like that. I like people who are out on the edge. Those who talk about shows that they want to do, as I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, my palms are sweating. How are we going to do that?' I like to have a stomachache. But I came from a company where I was literally told by Peter Chernin, "You bring me safe material and bore me, forget it. You take a huge risk and lose tons of money doing something that we're all incredibly excited about, and it blows up in your face, you get promoted."
THR: Your kids have been very involved in your philanthropic work; are they similarly involved in this job as well? As a focus group, perhaps?
Salke: I lay in bed a lot and watch TV with my kids, and I watch my shows a lot. My son was over my shoulder watching a cut of one of our shows recently. It had a problematic opening, but it’s a show we really love. He says, ‘Mom, I don’t mean any offense here, but who would ever watch this? Those characters have no appeal.’ And I go, 'What do you know from appeal?' He’s in seventh grade, and he tells me the teacher of his media class told them that every character should have some kind of appeal. So I said, 'I totally agree with you.' It was really funny. My girls, who are a little bit younger, are much more like our female demo. They love Chicago Fire and The Voice.