Lionsgate TV Chief on 'Mad Men's' Season 6 Secrets, 'Nashville's' Challenging Road
Kevin Beggs talks with THR about the cable player's push into broadcast, saying no to Matt Weiner and developing "Weeds" creator Jenji Kohan's upcoming Netflix series.
Kevin Beggs' viewing habits are as eclectic as his credits. The president of Lionsgate Television Group, who counts the British drama Downton Abbey and Seth MacFarlane's crass cartoon Family Guy among his favorite shows, has seen his career bookended by Baywatch (his big break) and AMC's Mad Men (his crown jewel). Along the way, the Northern California native, who joined Lionsgate in 1998, has grown the company's small-screen division from $8 million in annual revenue to nearly $400 million in 2012 thanks to such hits as Mad Men, Showtime's since-concluded Weeds and FX's Charlie Sheen experiment Anger Management.
During that time, Beggs, 46, and his close-knit team have collected 19 Emmys, with Men winning best drama series four consecutive years before it was bested by Homeland last fall. Now, he's pushing his studio into broadcast, with ABC's Nashville its first big swing. The married father of two, who commutes daily from San Marino to Santa Monica ("It's all about rolling phone calls, which is more efficient than just being angry," he jokes of the hour-and-a-half drive), sat down in late February to discuss Netflix's notes, Nashville's challenges and the pricey process of bringing Matthew Weiner's Mad Men back for season six, which premieres April 7.
The Hollywood Reporter: For years, Lionsgate has been known as a scrappy cable player. Why push into broadcast?
Kevin Beggs: Whatever we do in broadcast is going to be very selective and highly disciplined. There's an appeal insomuch as a broadcast success is more interesting financially by a factor of 10. Of course, a broadcast failure, in the same way, is more scary financially. But we're a bigger company now, and we've got a really good balance sheet, so our belief is that we should take a few more shots, always with an eye toward what is the differentiating thing we bring to it -- something that we can say, "Yes, but we also have this," whether it's a big international presale or the potential of a co-production. With Nashville, the music piece was the differentiator. The music's going to be meaningful to both us and ABC this year, and long term we hope for touring and merchandising and all the things that forebears like Glee and American Idol have done so effectively.
THR: Any cable-to-broadcast culture shock?
Beggs: Not long after the upfronts, we were invited to an ABC marketing meeting for Nashville, and they said, "You can only bring two people from the studio because there's not a lot of room." We get there, and there were probably 60 people in the room from their marketing team. Sixty. It was like four times the size of our division, and not a single person in there was a programmer. Our biggest meeting here might be seven people, so my head was spinning.
THR: Nashville scored incredible reviews, but that hasn't translated to big tune-in. Why?
Beggs: There was a lot of debate internally on the ABC side. If you ask [ABC Entertainment Group president] Paul Lee, he'll talk about the title. We were big advocates for this idea that it is an empty vessel, so let's fill it and make Nashville like Dallas. … But there's the potential that that also brings with it a certain point of view from the viewership, which is: "Oh, a show about the South -- that's not for me. I don't identify with that." We have high ratings in the younger demographic, the 18- to 34-year-olds, and I have a theory that there's this kind of 40-year-old cutoff when it comes to country and pop. For the younger generation, they are one and the same. But for the generation I'm part of, we still see the verticals of rock, rap, country and folk, and if I'm over in the rock and rap verticals, I'm never coming to the country vertical.
THR: How are you tweaking the show to lure more viewers?
Beggs: From the pilot to now, you'll see a pretty significant evolution in terms of the amount of story, the pacing, the high stakes and the more serialized "a-ha" moments, which really are part and parcel of a successful 10 p.m. drama on a network, especially ABC. It took a little while to incorporate those, but we found our footing, and these episodes that are airing now and will be through the end of the season are full of amazing twists and turns but always grounded in a relatable reality.
THR: You're working with Netflix on the Jenji Kohan comedy Orange Is the New Black. How has the process differed?
Beggs: A lot of the things that are exciting about Netflix is that they're a new player in the business without a long history of, "We only do this," or, "We only do that." There are a lot of rules they don't play by because they never have. But it's also been a learning process because these shows they're doing now are the first shows they've ever done. And just by virtue of how small an operation it is on the programming side, they cannot be everywhere. Although I will say they have been the most diligent visitors to the New York City set of Orange, logging dozens of trips, which is great.
THR: The House of Cards gang has been vocal about the lack of notes from Netflix. How has that process been for you?
Beggs: They have a lot of notes and ideas and things that are important to them, and they've conveyed them, but they convey them at a very high level. Then they let Jenji and her team -- and us as supporters of Jenji and her team -- execute them as they need. Casting was something they cared about because they have such specific algorithms about how they work and who's interesting to whom.
THR: What can you tell us about Mad Men season six?
Beggs: I am under so many nondisclosures, I think Matt probably has a bug in this office right now. (Laughs.) Every time I even mention the show, I wonder, "Is Matt listening?" But I will say this about it: What we have seen is amazing. … Matt is just not capable of doing anything less than total perfection, and yes, that comes with a price of his life and the budget.
THR: There were rumblings of budget concerns over Men's sixth-season premiere episode, which is set in Hawaii. True?
Beggs: You go anywhere on location on a period show with the cast, and there were a lot [of shoots] going on in Hawaii at that moment, so it comes with its costs. Because of Matt's process, we get material so close [to shooting] that there wasn't a lot of time for a conversation about what was going to go on. It's expensive, but I think this premiere is going to be incredible.
THR: Do you feel you can say no to Matt?
Beggs: We say no a lot. And that's followed by a lot of discussion. (Laughs.) You know, we end up with "probably" on many things. There are certain things Matt's just never going to compromise on that are essential to making the show great, and then there's a whole bunch of other things that he's doing all the time to take his vision and fit it into a production model that makes sense in a sixth season of a hit show with a very expensive above-the-line cast that's [become even more costly]. There's a line at which he believes, "Now quality will suffer," and he can't cross that line. So those are always the harder conversations, and we usually come up with some solution -- or everybody goes away slightly unsatisfied, and that's the sign of a good deal.
THR: Anger Management started strong, triggering an order of 90 more episodes, but has dropped. What happens if it starts to really tank at, say, episode 26?
Beggs: There's always that. But the whole enterprise of Anger Management is about creating a great show and building a new time block on FX, which has only ever had 10 p.m. shows. [Management airs at 9:30 p.m. Thursdays.] It has provided an amazing platform for its comedy block and refreshed its library of Two and a Half Men, so it serves a lot of purposes. I think they would say: "It's done a bunch of things that we hoped it would do. Do we want it to have a higher overnight number? Yes, but every network is saying the same thing right now."
THR: You're prepping another 10/90 comedy -- where if a 10-episode test run reaches a ratings threshold, 90 more are ordered at once -- with Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence. Where does that stand?
Beggs: Unlike Anger Management, which came with a title and a concept, or the case of George [Lopez], which was just George and let's find the show that we build around him, this had no title or concept. But the idea of Kelsey and Martin together is inherently funny and draws comparisons to great pairings in the past, whether it's The Odd Couple or Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. We're meeting with probably six to eight different showrunner-writer-producer types who are pitching ideas.
THR: How did that pairing come together?
Beggs: Mort [Marcus] and Ira Bernstein [co-presidents of Debmar-Mercury] had identified Martin as somebody that was interesting for the 10/90 model, and we were concluding a deal with him. Meanwhile, we were waiting with bated breath to find out if Boss was going to continue or not. Sadly, it didn't, but I think [Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer] was the one who said to Kelsey: "Look, you did an amazing thing with Boss. It redefined your entire brand for most people who know you as a comedic actor. But you know how to do that in your sleep, and we're having a lot of success with this 10/90." [Lionsgate TV COO] Sandra Stern, my partner in crime, came up with the idea of pairing them. We had those conversations with each, and it was great because they're so respectful of each other. Each artist basically said, "Do you think they'd work with me?" It was an incredibly humble point of view for both of these men, who to me are titans of TV.
THR: If you could gather all of the TV studio and network heads in one room, what would be the first thing you'd want to discuss?
Beggs: Time-shifting. You have to come up with a strategy for how you keep advertising in the television business in a meaningful and relevant way. Advertisers are leaving the market or spending less because they don't see a way to monetize their investment, which is ironic because more viewers are in the market today. It's not an easy fix, so how do you do it? Is it brand integration? Fewer spots, and you pay more? Ten years ago, that room might be like, "How come we just can't make better shows?" That isn't the issue anymore. The quality is there.