NBC Reality Chief on Jay Leno Layoffs, Sharon Osbourne's Media War and 'American Idol's' Woes (Q&A)
This story first appeared in the Aug. 23-Sept. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Step into Paul Telegdy's corner office on the NBC lot in Burbank, and you're quickly reminded of the reality chief's British heritage. There are rain boots, a framed James Bond poster (Roger Moore's iteration) and a collection of books about U.S. TV.
"People frequently give me books about American television history because they suspect -- rightly -- that this is a massive gap in my knowledge," quips Telegdy, one of a few holdovers from the Ben Silverman era at NBC.
These days, the engaged father of two young girls, who took on oversight of the network's late-night division in late 2011, continues to get more rope from his Comcast bosses. His Emmy-nominated series The Voice, after all, kept the network afloat this past season, averaging a 6.2 rating among the coveted 18-to-49 demographic.
Telegdy, 41, who previously worked at BBC Worldwide America and developed ABC rival Dancing With the Stars, sat down with THR on Aug. 17 to discuss recent layoffs at The Tonight Show, Sharon Osbourne's claim that she's quitting America's Got Talent (still summer's No. 1 reality show but down 11 percent despite the addition of Howard Stern) and the controversy surrounding his newest entry, Stars Earn Stripes.
The Hollywood Reporter: About 20 people are being laid off at The Tonight Show and Jay Leno opted to take a pay cut. Why?
Paul Telegdy: These are not easy decisions, and we don't take them lightly. The Tonight Show's costs increased when the show moved to primetime and were never changed to the original late-night budget when the show moved back to 11:30 p.m.
THR: Reality ratings have been down across the board this summer. What gives?
Telegdy: It's one thing to provide the excuse that there's a crowded market for singing shows. There is, so you better distinguish yourself in some way and not just rush rubbish on air. But to blame the ratings results on a maturation of the reality market is a white flag. It's the cop-show argument: "Oh my gosh, there are so many cop shows. Cop shows don't work." Then what comes along? One that blows you away. Why? Because it was just better than the others.
THR: So it's a quality issue?
Telegdy: Someone handed me a list of the shows that had launched in broadcast this summer, and is it any wonder these shows didn't rate? Have a look at them, guys! Don't blame the genre; the genre is still that which is garnering probably fully 30 to 40 percent of primetime audiences across all network television.
THR: What's the next genre?
Telegdy: I think anything done right with the right talent can distinguish itself, whether it's a dating show or a cooking show. Honestly, if there's one thing I'm really jealous of, it's [Fox's] Gordon Ramsay because if I could get away with merchandising one person with the same show three times, I'd be f---ing psyched.
THR: And MasterChef is actually registering gains this summer ...
Telegdy: He's great. It's very hard to go after the competitive cooking space because you've got someone who's arguably a complete category killer in the space.
THR: Why doesn't broadcast do the dirty-job shows that cable does so well?
Telegdy: I just don't think there are prizes in broadcast for re-expressing what cable does so well, and the business model is different. We have one chance to get a rating. I love shows like Swamp People, but I can dip in and out because they have a kind of disposability to them, which works on cable. On broadcast, it's about, "How do we reward you for being here?" There need to be outcomes and stakes in every episode.
THR: Howard Stern signed a one-year contract for America's Got Talent. Have conversations started for another season?
Telegdy: Not really. We knew this would be the most difficult time, when the radio show coexists with AGT's live shows. I absolutely want him to come back and be happy coming back. So we're still waiting to find out whether it's all working for him.
THR: Have you talked with him about the ratings? Presumably he came in hoping to really boost the numbers.
Telegdy: I think the show is really good, and we ask an awful lot of that show in terms of volume. It covers about 40-odd hours. In an Olympic year, because of those 17 days off regular programming, we had to start early, which meant its premiere was against the Dancing With the Stars finale.
THR: Do you regret that scheduling choice?
Telegdy: I do, if I'm honest.
THR: Sharon Osbourne said she's leaving the show in the wake of her son, Jack, not getting a spot on Stars Earn Stripes after his multiple sclerosis diagnosis. She has a contract to come back next season, right?
Telegdy: We have an option that is exercisable by us. When she said she has a five-year deal, no -- we have five years of options on her. You can never really coerce a performer into performing if they don't want to; we don't want to force anyone to do one of the best jobs in TV.
THR: Do you foresee her being part of AGT next season?
Telegdy: We normally don't even make that decision until November. So it's kind of a discussion that we wouldn't even have had, had Sharon not precipitated it by her conversations with the press.
THR: But now that she has, you have had those conversations, no?
Telegdy: Literally not one word has passed between myself and Sharon since she started the process of telling us she wanted to leave the show by means other than a phone call.
THR: The Voice producer Mark Burnett has said the current coaches will not necessarily be back for the spring iteration. Where are you in the process of securing talent for that edition?
Telegdy: What we have always said is that a chair on the panel is not a job for life, nor should it be. Blake [Shelton] has said things like: "I miss the smell of the beer and the sawdust. I've got to be out on the road." I think the authenticity, relevance and credibility are all wrapped up in what they do and how they define themselves, which is as active, relevant touring musicians. That may mean a seat on the panel becomes available.
THR: How does Mariah Carey's reported $18 million fee from American Idol affect your ability to recruit talent?
Telegdy: It's not true, to be honest. In whose interest is it to claim a paycheck of that size? "Let me send a massive flare cannon up to the IRS because I want everyone to know exactly what I earn?" I hear these numbers bandied around, and the truth is very different in terms of what exclusivities you are getting, how many options you get, what kind of merchandising rights you have. Each deal is now as different as the next in terms of what you get for it.
THR: But does a number like that, true or not, hurt you as you're trying to sign other people?
Telegdy: As talent, there are times you're worth more and times when you're worth less. Mariah Carey was in the right place at the right time when Idol had lost Jennifer Lopez. I don't work for Fox, and I don't know what's going on over there, but I know they needed someone so bad that they probably would've put another $5 million on that contract if that person had dug their heels in harder because they have an asset to protect. You hear stories of cutting costs, and that's absolute nonsense. They will spend their way out of trouble, as they have to.
THR: Had you tried to get Mariah on NBC?
Telegdy: We made no secret of the fact that we think Mariah is an extraordinary singer, and her husband [Nick Cannon] is the host of AGT, but there are no hard feelings with Mariah for doing Idol. She's a great person, wonderful company, really fun and an exceptional talent. They should be humbled, delighted and grateful that she's doing the show.
THR: Would you shower similar praise on The X Factor's Britney Spears?
Telegdy: I think people's curiosity around Britney will always be there. Will it be around her as a panelist on one of these TV shows? That depends on whether she's good at it. She would never have been on a list of people to participate on The Voice, but that doesn't mean she's not a valid choice for another show. So this is not a "Telegdy Says Britney Couldn't Do The Voice" headline. I just think Britney is a different booking, not a singing booking.
THR: Stars Earn Stripes was at the center of controversy when Desmond Tutu and others claimed the show promotes war. Does the attention help or hurt?
Telegdy: It's not good, it's not bad; it's just what happens. And we're not driving it because it's got an erroneous departure point. No one glorifies war. It is about the glorification of service and people that make these sacrifices. In fact, the people in the military and the first responders involved were so baffled that they were prepared to defend it in any way necessary, but we were like, "Don't worry, if this is a storm in a teacup, let it rage on."
THR: What's the wackiest pitch you've ever received?
Telegdy: As recently as the last couple of months I have had people come in here with a straight face and pitch a singing competition with three judges in which America will find an unknown singer.
THR: What's on your DVR?
Telegdy: I record NBC's primetime lineup. I check that my friends in marketing are staying on top of promotional flights for my shows -- otherwise I get calls from talent. I'm also in hour 36 of Breaking Bad, having started it before the Olympics. It somewhat destroyed my life.
THR: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you took the job?
Telegdy: I think, in all of these jobs, you're thrown into the deep end, and frankly, people watch you flail around -- and if you've made an impact, people start to rally around you. I worked at the BBC, which is a labyrinthine, heritage-laden organization with extraordinary internal politics. I came well prepared for NBC -- in fact, maybe too well prepared, is how I describe it. [Laughs.]