Reelz CEO Distances Miss Universe from Donald Trump, Talks Uphill Ad Battle
"This has nothing to do with Donald Trump," says Stan E. Hubbard, who likens the last-minute deal to running into a burning building.
When Reelz Channel airs the 2015 Miss USA pageant on Sunday, July 12, the telecast will bear little resemblance to the one originally intended for NBC — before Donald Trump's inflammatory remarks about Mexican immigrants prompted the broadcast network and most booked talent to pull out.
The cable network's CEO, Stan E. Hubbard, says that the week since he boarded the project has been about securing new hosts, judges and advertisers for the live telecast. And the last-minute nature of the changes, a far cry from the months-long planning Reelz had when it pulled a similar move in nabbing History's discarded (and controversial) Kennedys miniseries in 2011, has made the latter especially hard. In between trips to the Miss USA venue in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Hubbard spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about how Sunday's telecast will look, why he thinks the controversy will dissipate and whether or not he's interested in pulling a similar move with Miss Universe.
How involved have you been in orchestrating all of the last-minute changes to the pageant?
I'm running a little ragged this week. You step up to something like this with 11 days to go, it requires a total reassembly of the host, the judges, the entertainment, the ad sales and the television schedule. You have to get promos ready and, of course, the press is on fire with this one. I see why. When you run into a burning building, people start calling.
But all of the attention has to be good for exposure.
There's no question that it's always welcome. For one of the few remaining independent networks, it's especially hard to get attention. You don't have 15 other networks in your family to spread it around.
How is the advertiser search going?
In a nutshell, not great. But stepping back a little to look at the bigger picture, I think that's been great... we've been able to reach out to virtually every agency and advertiser there is because they know why we're calling. For an independent network to make that kind of contact is a good thing. Here's what we're hearing almost universally: "We understand what you're doing... We love what you're doing... You're doing the right thing..." But then there's always a "but." "It's too politically hot" or "It's too risky for our brand." Most advertisers have said they just can't do it. What you're going to see on Sunday night, in terms of advertising, are some decent commercials, a few nice PSAs and a lot of promos for Reelz.
The association with Trump wasn't a concern for you?
We're a family-owned network — so between my siblings, my dad and I, we can do whatever we want. We can make a fast decision. We don't have a complex set of concerns or things to worry about. We could look at the opportunity and say that it isn't about the politics. It's the 54th year that this event is going to be televised nationally. I understand the controversy, we completely understand how so many people can be offended, and it makes total sense why big companies are cutting ties with the pageant and with Donald Trump — but that's not what this is about. Those 51 contestants who have made this their life's dream didn't create this. They're completely uninvolved. The pageant is as nonpolitical as anything could be and has innumerable charitable connections. And the community of Baton Rouge put up a lot of money.
So you think it can separate itself from the controversy.
How many iconic American events do we have on TV every year? Outside of award shows and sports — or even including both of them — it's very few. They're never available. This is a chance for us to do the right thing, but we know what the risk is. You can't be partway in. And if the politics of this... if the toxicity of that attaches to us, that could be fatal. So the risk is trying to disconnect ourselves from the politics, because our beliefs are totally disconnected from those statements Mr. Trump made. I think I've been very clear on that. And I think we've been able to disconnect the politics from our network and ourselves. And nobody is blaming the pageant. So, in that sense, we've already accomplished what we've set out to do. What are we going to do for an audience? I don't know.
Do you have ratings expectations?
If we doubled our audience from what a normal Sunday night would be, I'm happy. This could take on a whole other life of its own because the press has been so heavy and hard on it. Sometime yesterday we crossed the 1 billion impression mark, and it's still going.
Were there conversations with Trump at any point?
No. All of our dealings have been with pageant officials. Paula Shugart is the president of the organization and she's tremendous.
What are your exceptions for how Sunday will be received?
It's too quick of a turnaround, but it's what we've got. I'll make this prediction: after the pageant airs on Sunday, just like with The Kennedys, the controversy will be over. People will see that it's a completely nonpolitical event. This has nothing to do with Donald Trump, other than that he is a minority owner in it. The license fee we paid, I won't tell you what it was, but it does not allow the organization to profit from our participation. And when the organization can't profit, the owners can't profit.
How many changes did you have to make to the telecast?
The organization is very small, and Reelz is very small for a network. The contract is on two pages. We've come together to completely reassemble the parts that are going to make a great television show. Every host, every judge and most of the entertainment bailed out. And I don't blame them. These are people are in entertainment, not politics. All of a sudden, this incredibly toxic cloud comes down on them — what's the natural reaction? Get out of the smoke. I have no hard feelings. It's a pretty uncomfortable position to be in.
Did the network's success with The Kennedys make this an easier decision?
Of course it did. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and collision of events. It had 10 Emmy nominations that year and won four. It was getting knocked down by people who hadn't even seen it. But we saw it, and it was great. We stood by it. It gave us record ratings, but it would have been great ratings on any network. Some 20-million people have seen that since it premiered.
Have there been any discussions about possibly airing Miss Universe as well?
We're open to it if they want to have a conversation. But I have no rights and they have no obligations beyond the show this Sunday. My hope is that we'll, in 11 days, have helped save the sash and return the polish to the tiara. And hold up the integrity of the institution which has tentacles in every state. If we do that, I'm hoping the political shroud gets lifted off of Miss Universe and it'll happen the way it would have. If it's not, we'd be there in a second.