Current and former employees allege that NBC Entertainment chairman Paul Telegdy engaged in racist, sexist and homophobic behavior: "It was par for the course."
On June 4, former America’s Got Talent judge Gabrielle Union filed a complaint with the state of California’s fair employment office alleging racism, sexism and a toxic work environment on the show. Union included a claim that in February, NBC Entertainment chairman Paul Telegdy had threatened her to silence her during the course of an ongoing investigation into workplace practices on set. NBC responded, “The allegation that anyone involved in this process threatened Ms. Union is categorically untrue.”
But Sharon Osbourne, who was a judge on America’s Got Talent for six seasons, tells The Hollywood Reporter that Telegdy threatened her in 2012 when she told him her family was considering holding a press conference to protest NBC’s decision to drop her son Jack from the reality-competition series Stars Earn Stripes shortly after he disclosed that he had MS. “He said, ‘Go fuck yourself,’” Osbourne recalls. “If you call the press you’ll never work in this town, you fucking witch.’” She quit the show over the dispute. Through his spokesman, Telegdy denies Osbourne’s account of the call.
THR interviewed more than 30 producers, executives and other current and former network insiders who say Telegdy, 49, presided over a toxic environment, particularly in the reality division, which he ran from 2009 until he was promoted to chairman in 2018. These insiders — who requested anonymity due to concerns about possible retaliation — say Telegdy and a top deputy have often violated workplace-conduct norms with no apparent consequences.
On Telegdy’s watch, NBC’s alternative division generated major hits including The Voice, Ellen’s Game of Games and, of course, AGT, a show that has been duplicated in many countries and is said to be the most valuable format in the world.
But sources say they have seen Telegdy mock gay executives, sometimes to their faces; use homophobic and misogynistic slurs; and disparage or make sexual comments about the physical appearance of network talent. Current and former insiders say they have heard Telegdy participate in what one former insider describes as “appalling” discussions in the office that included crude sexual remarks.
In a statement to THR, an NBC spokesperson says: “This narrative is not reflective of the values of NBC Entertainment or the culture we strive to create. NBCUniversal takes these matters seriously, and will investigate these allegations, many of which are coming to our attention for the first time. NBCUniversal remains committed to creating a safe, respectful and supportive workplace for all.” NBC declined to elaborate on who would conduct the investigation.
Telegdy also provided a statement: “The nature of these allegations flies in the face of everything I stand for. I hope that my actions over decades — empowering those around me, supporting artists, and creating shows with values of aspiration and inclusion at the core — speak louder than the selective words of a few.”
According to multiple sources, Telegdy — who has had an oversight role with respect to scripted programming since September 2018 — also has a sour relationship with two of NBC's most powerful mega-producers: Dick Wolf and Lorne Michaels. In 2011, Telegdy was given control of late night. But several sources say he started pushing Michaels to make changes and book NBC talent on late night shows, alienating the SNL producer. Sources say Michaels ultimately balked at working with Telegdy, who lost oversight of late night in 2016. An NBC spokesperson for Michaels responded that this account is “incorrect” without elaborating.
But in an unusual arrangement, the head of late night, Katie Hockmeyer, does not report to the NBC Entertainment chairman (Teledgy) but to his boss, Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBCUniversal Television and Streaming. Hockmeyer is a veteran of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon — a show that Michaels produces. (ABC’s Entertainment president Karey Burke’s purview includes late night; CBS senior exec vp Thom Sherman oversees late night, reporting to network topper Kelly Kahl.)
Wolf declined to comment on his relationship with Telegdy, but sources close to the Law & Order producer say he forged a strong relationship with Telegdy’s former co-chairman, George Cheeks, who played a central role in closing Wolf’s nine-figure overall deal at NBC before he departed in January to become president and CEO of CBS Entertainment Group. “There's a certain way you deal with Dick and it's respectful,” says one high-level source. “If you build trust, you can respectfully push back on things — and Paul never built that.”
The battle with Union arose after she made numerous complaints about AGT’s culture during her 2019 tenure as a judge. Her contract was dropped after one season, a decision that NBC has portrayed as business as usual. Union’s filing alleges that while NBC’s investigation into her allegations was underway, Telegdy told her agent that she “should be careful of who she called a racist.”
In an interview with THR, Union said she believes the lack of apparent consequences after Telegdy allegedly threatened her with an investigation underway “speaks to the culture at NBC” and “shows very clearly that white male senior executives of NBC have a completely different set of rules that apply to them.”
In response to Union’s allegations of racism and homophobia on the show, NBC said it retained an outside investigator who found “an overarching culture of diversity” on the NBC show. Union’s attorney, Bryan Freedman, says when NBC made that statement in early June, the investigation was still in process. An NBC spokesperson tells THR the investigation is now “substantially complete.”
Union’s allegations come at a time when Hollywood and the media world are in the midst of a reckoning around racism and workplace culture. On July 7, CBS fired MacGyver and Magnum P.I. showrunner Peter Lenkov for creating a toxic work environment; Disney recently dropped a powerful ABC News talent relations and business affairs exec for making “unacceptable racially insensitive comments” and managing “in a rough manner”; and The New York Times recently reported on an allegedly “toxic environment” at Hearst Magazines, leading to the departure of president Troy Young.
At a time of great focus on diversity, Comcast’s seven executive officers are all white men. NBCU has several women in senior roles, including Bonnie Hammer, chairman of NBCUniversal Content Studio; Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chairman Donna Langley; general counsel Kim Harris; and ad sales chief Linda Yaccarino. NBC is alone among the major broadcast networks in that no woman has ever held the top job overseeing entertainment.
A former exec at the BBC, Telegdy is known as a hit-maker and a strong salesman. Even some executives who have issues with the culture at NBC say he can be charming and entertaining. But several current and former network employees as well as individuals who have worked on some of the network’s biggest unscripted shows tell THR that working in the division was a terrible, even traumatizing experience. They attribute that not only to Telegdy but to Meredith Ahr, who was executive vp alternative programming when Telegdy ran the division and is now president of NBC’s Alternative and Reality Group.
"There was a lot of sex talk, drinking talk” says one executive of the workplace. Another former NBC executive says, “[Telegdy] heard this artist had this penis size and made fun of it. He made fun of the way people looked, their weight. It was par for the course with him.” Several heard him make lascivious comments about a pregnant executive’s breasts.
Sources say Telegdy and Ahr used disparaging nicknames for colleagues and talent. Several former insiders say they witnessed Telegdy mocking gay men, including colleagues at the company. “He would go into impersonations, acting like a gay person with a lisp,” says one former executive who is gay. Says another: “He used to make fun of the way [an exec at the network] talked and his affect as a gay man.” Yet another former insider, also a gay man, says, “He would make fun of my voice.”
In a statement, Ahr says: “I have spent my career striving to create a work environment that gives people an opportunity to learn and grow, as well as championing diversity and inclusion both on our shows and in our executive ranks. To see this false portrait painted by anonymous sources is devastating, and in no way reflects who I am.”
THR has spoken to three executives who say they were deeply unsettled when they heard Telegdy discuss — in a work setting — a sexual encounter allegedly involving himself, a close industry associate and a female musician. “I was shocked this was being told in a room with multiple people in it,” says one exec, who notes Ahr was among those present.
The son of a Hungary-born chemical engineer and a British actress turned teacher, Telegdy was hired in 2008 by his longtime friend Ben Silverman during Silverman’s rocky two-year run as co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios. Through various companies over the course of years, Silverman has produced a number of NBC shows, and the two men remain close.
Osbourne says she formed a low opinion of Telegdy at their first meeting, a dinner for the America’s Got Talent team. Telegdy — then apparently between marriages — arrived about 40 minutes late “with this tittering girl at his side,” she says. “She was on his knee the whole evening and he had his tongue down her throat and that was my introduction to Paul Telegdy.” Osbourne says she later told Ahr, “If that had been a woman, she would have been let go the next day.” Telegdy denies this account of the dinner.
During Telegdy’s time running the network’s unscripted division, insiders say Ahr, 41, became increasingly influential. The daughter of a Palm Beach doctor, she started her career at NBC in 2001 as a page in New York, and her rise at NBC was meteoric. She was soon assigned to the office of then-NBCUniversal chairman Bob Wright. In 2004, she moved to L.A. as part of NBC's associates program and ultimately was assigned another powerful mentor: Ron Meyer, then president and COO of Universal Studios and, since 2013, vice chairman of NBCU. By 2016, she had risen to president of the newly launched Universal Television Alternative Studios. By then, says a former insider, Telegdy “didn’t do anything without consulting [Ahr], and she’s really the more punitive of the two.”
A former high-level NBCU exec says he felt Telegdy “was always a little intimidated by her,” adding, “Every time she wanted to advance, even before she should have, Paul would come up with a plan to move her ahead. But they did produce a lot of hits so it's hard to begrudge that.” During their tenure, the network came up with The Voice and AGT (though sources note that Telegdy’s predecessor as head of unscripted, Craig Plestis, found the formats for both). Telegdy and Ahr made both shows into hits and subsequently came up with Ellen’s Game of Games and The Titan Games.
Several current and former insiders say Ahr often egged Telegdy on in his alleged mockery of others, although at times she then switched course and restrained him with a look or murmur. But a former NBC exec says Ahr could reduce staffers to tears, and several current and former execs and insiders — separately and spontaneously —describe a “mean girls” culture in the unscripted division.
”They have a club and you’re in or you’re out,” says one former staffer. “You fall out very easily. If you choose to challenge [Ahr], you get iced out.” One longtime producer on a top NBC show says, “It’s like a cult inside there.”
Among Union’s allegations is that members of Ahr’s staff relayed that her hair was “too wild” and needed to be “toned down” — notes that she alleges implied “that her hair was ‘too black.’” (Ahr is not mentioned in Union’s complaint, which cites Universal TV; Simon Cowell and his production company, Syco Entertainment; and Fremantle Productions).
Another insider agrees the notes seemed to be informed by race. “Hair, dress — ‘too loud’ might be a certain kind of code,” this person says. “I’ve seen producers on quite a few shows get offended.” (Producers on occasion refuse to pass on notes from execs that they feel crossed lines.)
An NBC spokesperson tells THR: “After interviewing numerous members of the production and crew, including Ms. Union and her team, the outside investigator concluded that no one from NBC, Fremantle or Syco told Ms. Union or her team that her hair was too wild or in any way intimated anything negative about her hair.”
Freedman tells THR that NBC’s outside investigator, an older white woman, “seemed incapable of perceiving the more subtle forms of racism” that Union experienced on AGT. Nonetheless, he alleges the investigator at one point acknowledged during a meeting that she had concluded at least one NBC executive had told Union’s manager that her hair was “too wild.” He alleges that the network not only pushed for a revision of that finding but wanted Union to agree to a joint statement which said that NBC never commented on Union’s hair.
Several former execs remember Ahr pulling a prank that struck them as deeply offensive: putting a framed photo of a Black actress whom Ahr apparently considered very unattractive on Telegdy’s desk. “She played it off as if Paul could refer to that as his wife and make fun of it,” one says. A spokesman for Ahr denies this and says she would never disrespect anyone in that manner.
In 2018, when Telegdy was tapped for the top NBC Entertainment job alongside George Cheeks, some on the scripted side did not take to Telegdy. “Paul has no ability to control what comes out of his mouth,” says a showrunner of one of NBC’s high-profile programs. “I didn’t get the sense that he had any respect for the written word. With Paul it’s all razzmatazz and bullshit.” During Telegdy’s tenure, the network came up with the low-rated but critically lauded Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.
In October 2019, NBCU announced a reorganization: Telegdy would become the sole chairman of NBC Entertainment while Cheeks was named vice chairman of NBCUniversal Content Studios. But by January, Cheeks had resigned to run the CBS Entertainment Group. “The irony is, it didn’t have to happen,” says a top agent. “Paul needed George.” A veteran showrunner of a signature NBC show also laments the loss of Cheeks — who is Black and openly gay — at a time when Hollywood is struggling to improve representation in its executive ranks.
For months, sources say, NBCU has had Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei working with Telegdy as a coach. (Previously an executive at Uber, Frei was the first woman named to the board of WeWork’s parent company in September 2019.) “This person has accomplished zero with Paul,” an insider says. While Telegdy is on good behavior in her presence, he continues, “he behaves like Paul when she’s not around.”
That leaves another NBC executive with questions. “A year ago, we all had to sit in a meeting with a lawyer for a seminar about the exact stuff in [Union’s] complaint,” this person says. “Everything they said to do, Paul didn't do and everything they said not to do, Paul did. Next time they want me to sit in a seminar, why would I do that? There's no enforcement of this. What's the point?”