Universal TV Chief on Broadcast's 'Gaping Hole' and Why She Had No Place for the Hillary Clinton Mini (Q&A)

Issue 32 Exec Suite BIZ Bela Bajaria - H 2013
Christopher Patey

Issue 32 Exec Suite BIZ Bela Bajaria - H 2013

Bela Bajaria tells THR about the changing pace of this year's development season and why the pitch for "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" hit just the right notes: "Andre Braugher's character as Gay Yoda -- very memorable."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When NBCUniversal executives decided they would relaunch a TV studio in summer 2011, Bela Bajaria was recruited to take the helm.

In the 24 months since then, Bajaria -- who had spent nearly 16 years at CBS, where she oversaw cable and miniseries programming -- has beefed up its portfolio with shows for corporate sibling NBC (Chicago Fire) and outside networks including A&E (Bates Motel) and Fox (The Mindy Project). Emmy voters have taken notice: This summer, Universal TV nabbed 42 nominations, with Parks and Recreation's Amy Poehler, 30 Rock's Tina Fey and Bates' Vera Farmiga among this year's best actress contenders.

Looking ahead to the 2013-14 season, she'll add at least eight new series, including the NBC drama Ironside and the Fox comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine. That Bajaria's path has taken her here still is something of a surprise to the married mother of three (ages 12, 10 and 6), whose Indian parents moved her to the U.S. when she was 8 and built a business owning car washes.

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Now, as Hollywood's highest-ranking Indian-American executive, Bajaria, 42, makes a habit of bringing in other young Indian-Americans interested in show business for informational interviews. "I always get asked, 'Wasn't it hard being Indian breaking into the business?' " she says, to which she often responds: "It didn't even occur to me that being Indian was an issue or a detriment. I saw it as an asset."

Bajaria, who oversees about 20 employees and was just tapped as president of the Hollywood Radio & Television Society, took a break from pitches in late August to speak with THR about the producers on her most-wanted list, the big push for multicamera comedies and the two series she wishes were hers.

In a matter of weeks, your new crop of shows will launch. How are you feeling?

Premiere week is very nerve-racking. At four in the morning, you just stare at your BlackBerry waiting for this public report card. If the numbers aren't good, you still have to pick up the phone and call the people who made the show. I learned that at CBS. When it's great news, everybody calls you.

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What are the major storylines you'll watch this fall?

I'll be watching the traction of multicamera comedies, the patience of networks and if the darker dramas thrive.

What's still missing from your portfolio?

I really want to crack the 8 p.m. family drama because it's a gaping hole. I have three children whom I can watch reality shows with, but what scripted shows can we really watch together? We watch The Voice and Survivor, which I love, but then you get into tiers of reality shows that I just can't do. I find myself going, "OK, can we find a movie that we all want to watch?" So I've pushed a lot this season to figure out what that 8 o'clock family drama looks like, because it can't just be unscripted. And then I'm always interested in finding the next big genre idea. Grimm is very successful for us, and [NBC's upcoming] Dracula has been fun, so now we have to figure out what the next twist is. If it's not vampires, what is it?

Dramas have been slow to emerge this development season. How challenged is the broadcast drama?

There's no denying that all of the cable dramas and the sheer volume of them -- including Netflix and Amazon and everybody else -- has had an impact on who is available. I think there's been this interesting discussion of, "What is a broadcast network drama? What is it that's smart, bold, sophisticated, entertaining and broad enough?" It becomes a much more thoughtful conversation, and it will take time to figure out, but between John Glenn (Eagle Eye), Alex Cunningham (Prime Suspect) and Jason Katims (Parenthood), the writers whom we have here on the drama side are extraordinary and are committed to the big broadcast network drama.

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How does this year's development season compare to past years?

We're definitely selling, but the ramp-up has been slower. It's been more measured as opposed to a total frenzy. For the state of the business, that's probably better.

Better for the business, perhaps, but shouldn't a studio exec love a frenzy?

I can't lie; I always enjoy the nice, spirited bidding war, as evidenced by the Matt Hubbard-Tina Fey-Robert Carlock [Fox comedy about the first year that men are admitted into an all-girls college]. But it's more about making sure the right project is at the right place. Sometimes we need to step back and remind ourselves it's not always about the highest bidder.

The networks largely have shied away from multicamera comedies. Why the resurgence?

Obviously there's an audience for it [on CBS]. There's also a generation of kids growing up watching multicam shows on Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, and so many of the iconic shows that inspired the people working in comedy today were multicam. Plus, it's an amazing business for a studio and a network because, well, we like money and ratings. (Laughs.)

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Selling shows to outside networks has been a priority, but I can't help but wonder why Brooklyn Nine-Nine isn't on NBC.

Fox had been great partners on Mindy, and we knew that they were committed to the Tuesday night comedy and they really wanted to open it up to males. We made a strategic move to take it outside -- we pitched it everywhere -- but Fox seemed like the right place. It's smart business to have a diverse portfolio, and it also really attracts a wide variety of writers to want to be at your studio. They know that you're going to support the idea, whether that means going to another network or going to cable.

Is there a pitch that stands out as a favorite?

Brooklyn Nine-Nine was a perfect pitch. [Mike Schur and Dan Goor] pitched Andre Braugher's character as Gay Yoda -- very memorable. Terry Crews' character was more sensitive after having twin baby girls, Cagney and Lacey. And Andy Samberg's character was hilarious but equally good at his job. Each character was so well drawn out that you could feel where the comedy came from and knew exactly what the show was.

If you could lock up any writer in town, who would you sign?

[Breaking Bad's] Vince Gilligan is certainly one that we kept chasing. And then Chuck Lorre.

There's been lots of attention paid to limited series. Is that appealing to you as a studio?

The event-series business is an amazing one for networks, and it absolutely has its place, but we're only 2 years old, and we still have a lot to get up and running. We have to spend our time, resources and manpower focused on dramas and comedies to fill the pipeline.

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So producing the Hillary Clinton miniseries for NBC never was an option?

We did 10 hours of Dracula because it was a drama that we developed internally, and we knew that it could have another 10 and another 10. The same for Crossbones. Something that could be a recurring series makes sense, but if not, it's just not something that's on our radar.

What are the competitive shows, both new and old, that you wish were yours?

Blacklist. It has a dynamic actor [James Spader] in the center, and it's a smart, well-executed franchise. And CSI. I'd really like a billion-dollar franchise!