NBC Reality Chief Paul Telegdy on the Arnold-Trump 'Apprentice' Feud, Nick Cannon and Netflix
THR's Reality Power Player of the Year — with TV's No. 1 unscripted brand and a busy new alternative studio — also opens up about what it would take for him to revive 'American Idol.'
The alternative department at NBC's Studio City offices is covered with something conspicuously absent from its Big Four rivals — evidence of recent hits. The network went from No. 4 to No. 1 on the coattails of The Voice, TV's dominant reality property for five seasons, and the years since the show's 2011 premiere have brought NBC broadcast's few unscripted breakouts, including American Ninja Warrior, Little Big Shots and The Wall. Much credit belongs to Paul Telegdy, the 46-year-old British executive who arrived at NBC nearly nine years ago and has since become the most tenured and powerful buyer in the broad arena of "reality." Now president of NBC Entertainment's Alternative and Reality Group, where he oversees both a network and a studio alongside longtime lieutenant Meredith Ahr, Telegdy talks about the pleasures (Comcast's corporate confidence) and pains (that whole Apprentice thing) of leading the charge in TV's biggest genre.
Arnold Schwarzenegger cited "baggage" when quitting Apprentice. What was your take?
Arnold did a fantastic job. There was a massive headwind for its success, and that certainly wasn't any failing of Arnold's. The president has voiced his opinion around the show. That's a strange place for any person, TV show, talent, prime minister of a foreign country, leader of a labor union, head of the opposition, media, whatever. … You're in pretty uniform company when you're in the sights. That was a tough situation that Arnold navigated with extraordinary class. It's fair to say that the franchise, as it exists, has a fairly uncertain future. As do we all. (Laughs.) I don't think there's any rush to renew the show.
Trump essentially was an NBC employee for six years. Were there any talks about him returning as host had he lost the election?
The last two years are such a blur, but, no, I don't think there was — not material [talks]. I could never characterize myself as Donald Trump's employer. That's nonsense, but the same is true in maybe every talent relationship. There's probably a couple of people in the business who'd pretend that the f—ing talent works for them. No. Talent works for no man.
That's something Nick Cannon made clear when he quit America's Got Talent.
Nick is an amazing all-around performer, and he's someone whose career I kind of feel like I played a very strong personal hand in. AGT has been fantastic for Nick, and Nick has been fantastic for AGT. Somewhere, we just drifted apart. We could've all communicated that a bit better, so it turned into a bit of drama for us.
What pitch do you hear too often?
"True crime" is definitely a buzzword. But it's just taste. With Making a Murderer, for instance, I was like, "This feels like a Dateline with a budget for an opening title sequence." Funnily enough, as everyone was ranting about that case, it had already been on Dateline twice. We're very well served in the space by the [NBC] news division.
Is Netflix's reality push a threat to broadcast?
I watch a lot of Netflix. It's a great mousetrap, and there's some good cheese in there. But my understanding is that the majority of their viewing is done by people who sequentially watch something until it's finished. That's not how reality shows are consumed. They live contemporaneously. Imagine that this season of The Bachelor was a binge show. It just wouldn't be a thing, would it?
Why is NBC's success in reality so atypical?
Comcast bought [NBCUniversal] in 2010, but the book value of NBC in that merger was like $1. You just got NBC as part of this great company. Quickly, in 2011, something happened … the launch of The Voice. It changed everything. They saw the power of alternative. Since then, of course, it's, "What's the next Voice?" But they saw what it did to an asset, so we're well supported and well resourced.
NBC is also the only Big Four network without the executive turnover we've seen elsewhere.
My understanding of the American system was that the person here just waits to get fired. I said, "We have to change this." You can't have disturbance and chaos. So we have a bit of a clan mentality, but it serves us well. And when a new buyer moves in — I say this because Rob Wade, an old friend, has just taken over at Fox — the town is programmed to try and sell you all the previous "No's" of the last three regimes. You have to sit there, slightly guilelessly, nodding wisely because people try to take advantage.
There is talk of you kicking the tires on American Idol. Is that property of enduring appeal?
I moved to America in 2004, and Idol was at its absolute juggernaut height. We admired it and feared it. It was a game-changer. If one of those shows comes up for sale, you have to think about it. But The Voice is strong and beloved, so if we were to do Idol, we would have to have a strong reason. Talk to the people at FremantleMedia. They'll make no secret that they have ambitions to restart that show.
Are you looking for something to take the pressure off of two annual cycles of The Voice?
The Voice has been a phenomenon that nourishes this place in a big, big way. And at the same time, everyone involved in it — people that work 52 weeks a year on The Voice — have been on a treadmill, and we can't let them off. I'd love to alleviate that at some point.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.