This story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In June, it seemed certain that NBC’s canceled Community would find new life at Hulu. But when negotiations broke down, it was Yahoo that swooped in with an eleventh-hour bid for the sixth season of the cult comedy. Kathy Savitt, the web giant’s chief marketing officer, had convinced creator Dan Harmon during a 40-minute phone call that it was the right home for his show. Community, set to premiere March 17 on Yahoo Screen, is now the beachhead for Yahoo’s growing slate of original programming, which also includes new comedies from Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and Mike Tollin (Smallville).
Savitt, 51, is a veteran marketer with a résumé that hardly portends a move into TV development. An entrepreneur who started her first company before 30, she held posts at Amazon.com and American Eagle Outfitters before launching Seattle social commerce startup Lockerz in 2009. Three years later, she became one of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer‘s first C-suite hires. As her star has risen, she has added oversight of media, and she now manages a team of about 50 on Yahoo’s video side, as well as editorial initiatives, including a slate of digital magazines, “global news anchor” Katie Couric, Saturday Night Live clips and Yahoo Live, which has a deal with Live Nation to stream a concert a day for a year.
But Savitt’s growing influence in Hollywood (she’s in Los Angeles every other week) comes as Yahoo has faced growing criticism under Mayer, a product-driven executive, for a lack of a coherent content strategy. Mayer faces pressure from activist investors to cut costs and consider a merger with AOL. Still, Yahoo is a company with a $43 billion market cap and a home page that lures 800 million users a month, an enviable platform for content (Yahoo doesn’t break out earnings for its media division).
Savitt, a mother of two daughters and three stepdaughters, invited THR to her office in Sunnyvale, Calif., where she revealed what it’s like working for Mayer and why she’s the right woman to revive Community: “I tend to get really geeky when I love a show.”
Give us your pitch: Why should someone make a show for Yahoo?
We see ourselves as this connective tissue between a content creator — that might be an A-list showrunner or writer or director, sometimes it might be a network, sometimes it might be a brand — and an audience. Yahoo has spent quite a while and a lot of resources developing personalization technology that can match the right show with the right audience. Yahoo becomes, in many ways, your guide to what will inspire and entertain you. And so when we look at shows and content in general, we look at it as, “How are we going to get the best audiences for the world’s best storytellers?”
Signed plaques come from Bonfire Cirle and Idea Safari, two thought leadership retreats that Yahoo hosts annually.
Why did you start with comedies?
Yahoo has had a very rich history in comedy. A lot of our shortform content has been comedic and done quite well, and we’ve built a really tremendous comedic audience over the years that we know are low-hanging fruit for us. But when we decided to embark on this journey, we looked for the best storytellers with which we felt we could share a vision. The first person we decided we were going to team with was Paul [Feig], arguably one of the best comedic minds working today. I suppose if he had been a great drama producer, I would have looked at it. With Community, we didn’t say we needed a third comedy to round out our slate. I became inspired by Community fans.
Can Yahoo’s originals go beyond niche fare and become broad hits?
I don’t think Community was ever meant to have a niche audience. It’s an amazing script with an amazing cast that a group of 3 million to 4 million people fell in love with in a fanatical way. But the audience for Community, we think, is much broader. Because of our reach, 1 billion-plus users across the globe on a monthly basis, we’re hoping to help Community cross that chasm.
Yahoo is reportedly paying Katie Couric $5 million a year to be its “global anchor.” What is your goal?
Katie’s redefining what broadcast news is all about, using Yahoo as this giant platform to reach the world. We’ve been pleased with our relationship with her.
Yahoo’s content strategy has been criticized as inconsistent and unfocused. How do you respond?
I’ve been in this role for a year, and we’ve been really consistent and, quite frankly, focused and disciplined about how we have executed on this notion of being the guide or connector between audiences and content. We were very focused on picking three or so projects that we would announce on the longform, scripted side.
Savitt’s office is lined with mementos of Yahoo shows, including a guitar signed by Macklemore, John Legend and Spoon from “On the Road.”
Because you don’t have a background in development, how involved are you with creative decisions?
I’ve been very involved with the creators of the shows. We have a development team and our own internal showrunners who partner with showrunners on each series.
Do you give notes?
I have a terrific development team that sits and works with the showrunners. The thing that Yahoo does that makes us an unusual partner is that because we’re doing a bespoke number of originals, we’re great creative partners. While we do hopefully provide a good amount of value about what will resonate with Yahoo users, we let their vision be realized. I hope that’s what people would say about us. That would be the highest form of flattery, in my mind.
Would you hire a big-name programmer — like Hulu and Netflix have done — to be the face of your originals efforts?
We’re not trying to replicate someone else’s strategy. We’re trying to connect great storytellers and content producers with their audiences. What we bring to them is our audience, as opposed to one person’s particular vision driving programming. Would we hire going forward and add to the team? I’m always looking for great people to partner with.
“I’m officially a student,” Savitt jokes of the Greendale Community College ID card, part of the marketing for Community’s upcoming sixth season.
How involved and engaged is Mayer in the content decision-making?
She sets the macro strategy for Yahoo as a company, and it has allowed the team to do its work. But she’s not, in any way, in each and every meeting.
Nielsen has announced plans to start measuring Netflix and Amazon viewership. Since Yahoo is ad-supported, will you share ratings?
We always do a very effective job of getting advertisers metrics and allowing them to understand the value of their dollar spends on Yahoo. But we haven’t to date publicly stated numbers the way TV channels do. It’s not that we say never. We’ll be good industry players as time goes on.
With your live music venture, how do you measure a show’s success?
On shows where we have an A-list star, we have well into the seven figures watching in the first 24 hours and millions coming back and watching it on VOD. For an unknown band, we’ll get tens of thousands who watch in the first 24 hours. What I think is remarkable is not that Taylor Swift gets several million views, but that a young band that is maybe headlining its first tour can do live six figures and seven figures over a period of months.
A framed essay from when one of Savitt’s daughters was 11 describes how she wants to follow in her mom’s footsteps. “I’m a pretty strong feminist and I’m raising five daughters,” she says.
What is your working relationship like with Mayer?
We met several years ago at Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women Summit. We sat together just by serendipity at a dinner one night and became acquaintances. She’s a real innovator, very collaborative and collegial. There’s a spirit of optimism and excitement about being here.
Has stress from activist investors seeped into what you do?
It is certainly not a question for me. We feel that the media strategy has always been an important component to what our users do every single day on Yahoo — it’s one of those daily habits. Our customers are our users, and we use them as our compass. If they tell us they are not delighted, then we do less of that. If they tell us they’re delighted, then we do more of that. By focusing on our users, that yields success for all of our key stakeholders.
If you could steal one show for Yahoo, what would it be?