Next Gen 2010: TV

Bill Phelps
(From left) Noah Pollack, Yelena Chak, Meredith Ahr, Kelly Luegenbiehl, Andy Richley and Carolyn Cassidy. Not pictured: Jocelyn Diaz

Influential executives from this year's report on industry players

Meredith Ahr
31, Senior vp alternative programming and development, NBC

Growing up in North Palm Beach, Fla., Ahr was obsessed with TV. "I knew every station, every show and would lay out the evening's programs for my family," she says. But her childhood obsession didn't lead to a living until she joined NBC's page program, working on the first post-9/11 broadcast of Saturday Night Live. "I recently saw that episode for the first time, and it sparked something in my head," she says. "Making people laugh in a time that's tough? That matters." The Boston College grad went from page status to NBC's associates program. Assigned to the reality beat, she helped develop hits like The Biggest Loser, The Marriage Ref and America's Got Talent. "My litmus test is, can I imagine my grandpa, mom, nieces and nephews all watching it?" she says.  

Carolyn Cassidy
32, VP comedy development, 20th Century Fox Television

It's no surprise that Harvard graduate Cassidy landed in the television business: She spent her childhood moving from market to market with her TV station-managing father. But two college internships in summer 1997 -- one reading scripts at Richard Donner's company and the other stuck in an office on a feature at Warner Bros. Animation -- made her career choice clear. "I liked working more on the creative side with material -- directly," she says. These days, Cassidy makes that dream come true working on Mixed Signals (adapted from the Israeli dramedy Traffic Light) and has brought aboard in-demand writers like Jhoni Marchinko and Liz Astrof while also serving as point person on deals with the Chernin Co. and Gary Janetti. With a mom who works at Williams-Sonoma, Cassidy gets lots of interesting kitchen paraphernalia and says, "I watch a lot of The Barefoot Contessa, and I can make a good lasagna."

Yelena Chak
35, VP drama development, CBS

Most Seinfeld fans have a favorite Kramerism or Costanza moment. For Chak, the characters of NBC development execs Russell Dalrymple and Susan Ross left a  bigger impression. "I was like, ‘They have the coolest job in the world!' " says Chak, a Ukraine native who immigrated with her parents -- both engineers -- to Connecticut at age 3. "The quintessential immigrant story," Chak says. The Cornell grad and Stanford MBA eschewed a career in finance to pursue a dream of her own. She filled a UTA mailroom slot in 2002, which catapulted her into comedy development at NBC (My Name Is Earl) and later to a job as director of TV at Bruckheimer Television, where she cut her dramatic teeth on Without a Trace. At CBS since 2007, Chak has been key to its biggest current hits: The Mentalist, The Good Wife and Hawaii Five-0. The avid runner, who logs about six miles a day, knows what she's sprinting toward: a career like that of boss Nina Tassler. "She's brilliant, but she also keeps us all inspired," Chak says.
Jocelyn Diaz
33, VP drama series, HBO Entertainment

Diaz was all set to study international relations at Georgetown when she landed a P.A. job on Disney's Teacher's Pet 2. She never looked back. Now the Vienna, Va., native is a key player behind such shows as HBO's Boardwalk Empire and Big Love and is anticipating next year's Game of Thrones, a medieval fantasy series. The former ICM assistant and ABC exec, who lived in Spain during college, has a self-professed travel addiction that focuses on Latin American countries because she speaks the language. "When you travel, you get a chance to see what other people are trying to make in their film and television entertainment, which gives you an idea of what [they feel] about in their own culture."

Kelly Luegenbiehl
32, VP comedy development, ABC

It's all about family for Luegenbiehl, who has helped turn ABC's Wednesday night lineup into a beachhead for domestically minded sitcoms including Cougar Town, The Middle and breakout hit Modern Family, which became the network's first show to win a comedy series Emmy in 22 years. "Family comedies weren't on the air, so we had always looked at that as an opportunity," she says. "Then last year everything came together." Her family encouraged her to fly from her native Indiana to check out Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. There she pursued her passion for radio, hosting an independent music program and a call-in talk show for the college station, KSPC. But radio jobs were hard to come by, so she went to work as a page at NBC, then at NBC Studios. "Some of the writers and directors that I met are people I still know and work with today," she says. They include Jonathan Groff, showrunner for Happy Endings, which is set for a midseason debut along with the new Matthew Perry sitcom Mr. Sunshine. "We feel [they] broaden that definition of family, which I think is going to be our bigger goal," says Luegenbiehl, who came to ABC in summer 2006. "Your friends are your family. Your workplace is your family."
Noah Pollack
VP series development and original production, VH1

Blame -- or thank -- Pollack for the televised train wreck that was Heidi Fleiss and Tom Sizemore's reunion on Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew. Now in its fourth season, the reality juggernaut defies the notion that "reality was supposed to be dead by now," he says, "but you can get whiplash trying to keep up with it." A UC Berkeley grad who learned the reality ropes working for Bunim-Murray, Pollack also did stints at ICM, Renegade 83 and USA Network before joining VH1 in 2006, where early success with the Rehab shows brought him promotions -- and even a bit of family approval. "I'm probably the only person in my family who doesn't have a graduate degree," says the married father of a toddler daughter. "Being part of a show that has gotten good press is a feather in my cap."
Andy Richley
33, VP, Lionsgate Television

With a lifelong knack for numbers, Richley seemed destined for a career in the business and finance world -- until an old college friend of his dad's offered some advice. "[NBC's] Rick Ludwin told me: ‘Have some fun. Look into the page program at NBC,' " says Richley, a Chicago native who joined the page ranks less than two weeks later and found himself scouring scripts in search of the next Friends. "I immediately felt, this is what I have to do." His instincts for good material have been well utilized at Lionsgate Television, where in the past six years he has helped develop Showtime's Weeds and Nurse Jackie and AMC's Emmy juggernaut Mad Men, as well as countless reality and documentary projects. For Richley, the father of a 2-year-old, and a baby on the way, the best part of his job is still those early moments of inspiration. "When the writers talk for hours about this world and their characters … that kind of passion and knowledge — you can't beat it," he says.

Next Gen 2010 profiles written and reported by Randee Dawn, Leslie Bruce, Todd Longwell, Carita Rizzo, Lauren Schutte and Andrew Wallenstein