Hollywood's Executive Shuffle: Inside the Seismic Shifts in Television’s Top Jobs

Susan Rovner, Pearlena Igbokwe, Channing Dungey, Karey Burke and Bela Bajaria
Courtesy of Terence Patrick/NBCUniversal; Gettyimages(4)

From left: Susan Rovner, Pearlena Igbokwe, Channing Dungey, Karey Burke and Bela Bajaria

As the town tries to make sense of 2020's sweeping changes in TV’s C-suites, streaming's priority is the only constant.

"It's the great reckoning," Kevin Reilly warned in early August, still fresh from his ouster as head of HBO Max and a cadre of cable networks. "With the pandemic as an accelerant," he continued, "there will not be one corner or sector that will sit with their feet up thinking, 'I'm good!'"

Prescient as those words were, even Reilly couldn't have predicted the upheaval that would come during the back half of 2020, as Hollywood's legacy companies dramatically overhauled their executive structures to (finally) make their streaming businesses their top, and in some cases seemingly only, priority. "It's hard to be angry, because these companies had been making so much money from basic cable and they were committed to that cash cow," says one agency partner.

But times — along with viewing habits, corporate mandates and CEOs — have changed. So, with the cover of a global pandemic wreaking havoc on bottom lines, companies have been making seismic changes at a scale few, if any, have ever seen before. Overnight, fiefdoms have been redrawn and positions wholly reconceived as new leaders strive to keep pace. Or, as Lightshed Partners analyst Richard Greenfield puts it, "try to function like Netflix."

No one has moved as swiftly — or without regard for whatever previous sensitivities existed — as WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, who assumed the role in April and, by August, had pushed out veteran leaders Reilly and his boss Robert Greenblatt; studio chairman Peter Roth was replaced a few months later. Over at NBCU, CEO Jeff Shell, himself only a year on the job, blew up his entire programming structure, positioning the cable group (Bravo, USA, Syfy) along with NBC and streamer Peacock under a single programming executive, new hire Susan Rovner, for the first time. And at Disney, the once high-priority broadcaster ABC lost its own dedicated exec; with little fanfare, the network reins were simply folded into Hulu boss Craig Erwich's purview.

In the giant game of musical chairs, as many have described what's going on, there've been dramatic changes to the demographics of those still with seats when the music stops. Though the CEO suites remain reliably older, white and male, the vast majority of top TV jobs of late have gone to women and people of color. Pearlena Igbokwe, who became chairman of NBCU's consortium of TV studios in September, suggests the wave of overdue BIPOC promotions can be attributed in part to the wake-up call too many in Hollywood got this spring as they watched people of color like George Floyd killed at the hands of police. No longer able to ignore or pay lip service to its own social inequity, the industry was forced to acknowledge its part and, simply put, do better. "So," she recently told THR, "people who looked different got jobs because the business was making purposeful, intentional decisions as opposed to just the rote, 'Let's just do the same thing we have always done before.'"

Igbokwe is optimistic that such choices will be felt broadly. "Hopefully there's some 20-year-old Black woman who sees me in this job, who sees Channing Dungey in that job, who sees Tara Duncan in her job, and goes, 'Oh, I can do that,'" she says. "Because when I was coming up, there certainly weren't all these Black women running companies in the entertainment business."

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This story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.