Spike TV Exec on Plans for 'Lip Sync Battle' and Luring More Women
The network's executive vp Sharon Levy talks Viacom's upheaval, ditching the channel's bro rep and moving into scripted.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
For much of the past year, Sharon Levy, 45, has been leading a radical reinvention of Spike TV. She has overseen scripted and nonscripted development at the Viacom-owned channel since joining Spike in 2005. But her greatest mission has been to transform the formerly bro-focused property to a more female-friendly lineup. That's meant moving away from male-leaning shows (think Cops reruns) to capture a more diverse audience with original shows like Lip Sync Battle and scripted miniseries like Tut. The result: 2015 was Spike's most watched among women in seven years. That's a radical change for a cable channel that once billed itself as "The First Network for Men." Levy, a former exec at film and TV production company Stone Stanley Entertainment, believes women hold the key to Spike's growth. While Spike was no exception to cable's 2015 ratings woes (off 8 percent in total viewers), the network still sank cash into original programming. Shows such as tattoo competition Ink Master and Bar Rescue helped push ratings up 8 percent in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49 demographic and an impressive 26 percent among women in the demo. It's a promising sign that Levy's bid to be more inclusive is working. Operating revenue for Spike — now in 91.4 million homes — was $842 million in 2015, according to SNL Kagan.
The New York native turned Angeleno and married mother of an 8-year-old son — who in her off-hours is a casual art collector, avid boxer and Kauai regular — invited THR to her Santa Monica office to discuss a programming strategy that includes a variation on James Corden's Carpool Karaoke called Caraoke Showdown (Corden's exec producer isn't too pleased about it, telling Adweek, "We're disappointed that our idea would be taken by somebody else"), big-swing scripted fare such as Gale Anne Hurd's take on the popular Pendergast novels and ambitious sci-fi offering Red Mars.
What's been the biggest change in your business since you've been at Spike?
When we decided to go from being a young, male network to a broader, general entertainment network. We greenlit a ton of programming designed to attract women to watch with their men folk. We announced our return to scripted.
What drove that shift?
We all looked at each other and said, "Viacom does not in its portfolio have a general entertainment network." The brands were all very specific, and we knew that was a big opportunity for us. We knew that would lead to ratings growth. You can't do that if your brand in and of itself is saying, "Hey, ladies, not so much; we want the young guys."
How challenging has it been to get people to think differently about Spike?
It's been challenging. Brand perception always lags what the brand is actually doing. When we greenlit Ink Master — which is going into its seventh season and the sixth was its highest rated — we knew it would skew more female and it worked. Ink Master consistently beats all the female channels and Ink Master: Redemption came out of that.
Nearly a year after Spike's rebranding, what are your biggest shows with women?
Lip Sync Battle is skewing 60 percent female. Ink Master and Redemption are 50 percent female. The big one was Tut. We intentionally wanted a very diverse cast. We knew that the story would appeal to men and women, and that was pushing 60 percent female, which was surprising. The beauty of that was 81 percent of the people who came for Tut had not been into Spike prior to that. If you look at the complexion of the channel by what counties were watching prior to Ink and Bar, it was very different. We're resonating in the bigger cities, which means bigger ratings.
Who is your dream guest on Lip Sync Battle?
LSB has shown that, despite the genre's recent struggles, there's still success to be had in unscripted space. What do you think is driving the downturn?
It's cyclical. Making a Murderer and The Jinx are looking at nonscripted in a different way. We're excited about [docuseries] The McAfee Project, a four-hour event on John McAfee, one of the biggest mavericks of our time. (McAfee is an Internet pioneer who was accused — and later cleared — of murder.) Two years ago we never would have attempted to do a show like that. And now with Tut working, there is a place for us to have these miniseries and the flexibility to say not every series has to be 10 episodes.
Are you looking to get into the true crime space with something like Jinx or Making a Murderer?
I love true crime, but you don't chase the tail. Wherever we have led, instead of followed, we have always won. You see that in our scripted slate — it's very diverse, like with Gale Anne Hurd's Pendergast [about a traveling FBI agent].
You ordered Caraoke Showdown with Craig Robinson. Why start with just a special?
We don't know that it's officially just one. There are a lot of technical challenges making a show like this, and we decided to start with a big special, give it a great time slot — which I'm not going to discuss — and hope the ratings gods smile upon us again. Then we can take a look at it and decide if we're sitting on gold and go straight to series. We think Craig is a huge star — a guy who sings, who's funny, who has drama chops and, thankfully, a clean driving record. One of the things that makes it so fun is you're in an unsuspecting game show and you think you're getting in an Uber and suddenly you're playing with money and an icon you love could be jumping in the car in the next segment. Part of the game could be involving people walking about town and what happens when you ask them to suddenly participate in a game show. It's one of those ideas that's so painfully simple that it's fantastic.
Is the goal to develop companion pieces for each of your big shows?
We're looking for something to pair with all those shows. We're looking at everything, and then on the other side, we're looking at things that have never happened before, like McAfee. It's a whole new world here. Ink Master has [the spinoff] Redemption. For Bar Rescue, we have new show Life or Debt that's coming out right behind it, March 13. Bar is run like a family — all the dynamics and inter-politics. It's a way to look at what's really going on and get to that emotional core.
You're going around as a scripted buyer for Spike. What's the pitch?
We want elevated pop; shows that men and women would watch; shows that are different. We don't want medical dramas. We need something that has a big hook to it that is unique, and that's what led to Red Mars. It's more science fact-based than science fiction.
What do people get wrong when they pitch you?
It's starting to wane, but for a long time we were just getting very male-focused shows. It was very Captain Obvious, like, "There are 10 guys and they robbed a bank and they're going to shoot someone …" We went, "Really?! We want something more in-depth." Red Mars will be our first scripted series and will launch in early 2017. The vast majority of the schedule will still consist of nonscripted originals, sports, some acquisitions and then there will be scripted. If we do two series a year, maybe three, that will be great.
What has been the hardest piece about the transition back into scripted?
The competitiveness. If you love something, you have to move quickly, grab it, convince people who you are … and that's been a challenge but not insurmountable. I don't think we've lost to Netflix; Cinemax, a couple. We aren't making our choices out of 20 things; we are making our choices out of four or five things.
You scrapped Jerry Bruckheimer's straight-to-series drama Harvest before turning to Red Mars. What was the lesson there?
There was no lesson. They're great people; it was a great script. Some things just don't work out. That's the business.
If you had to pitch a reality show based on your life, which parts or settings would producers focus on?
My best friend is [reality producer and T Group founder] Jenny Daly and one of my best friends Cori Abraham is a senior vp at Oxygen, and every now and then they're like, "Sharon, just quit your job, Jenny is going to produce your talk show and Cori is going to air it." I don't know if Oxygen knows that.
What was your best day on the job?
The first day on the set of Tut with all the chariots and the extras and realizing I'm in charge. I was like Carrie on Homeland, changing in cars to get [to places]. We found cobras on our set, and I thought it was awesome.
What's the one that got away?
I was very upset — like tears upset — when [season three] of [Bachelor parody] Joe Schmo Show didn't work because that's what brought me to Spike. I was a producer on it and that's how Kevin [Kay, Spike TV president] met me.
What's the craziest thing you've done to get a show or piece of talent?
One time I wanted a show and I wrote a Jerry Maguire-type letter to [TV co-head] Sonya Rosenfeld at CAA to try and get it and I didn’t. It was a show called Everest and it was one of the first pitches I took from writer Jeffrey Lieber and Alcon's Sharon Hall. It was an amazing pitch and I really wanted it but Fox limited took it. At the time, I didn't know Sonya and I begged her. I got [Viacom head] Doug [Herzog] to call her and Kevin to call her. I tend to get what I want and don’t have to do anything too crazy, but I’m not beyond it.
With so much upheaval going on at Viacom, how challenging is it to stay focused?
If you are any media company at this point … you're all under attack. My job is not to figure out how to change the world; it's to make amazing content.