Creative Space

NBC's Scripted Chiefs on Creative Risks, Writers-Agents Standoff and Development Season Trends

Michele Thomas
Lisa Katz (left) and Tracey Pakosta were photographed Nov. 11 in their Universal City offices.

Lisa Katz and Tracey Pakosta, who divide and conquer on comedy and drama, address the network's No. 2 status, new streaming service Peacock and the show they'd most like to reboot.

As many within NBCUniversal obsess over the particulars of Peacock, the company's forthcoming streaming service, Lisa Katz and Tracey Pakosta are tasked with keeping the company's long-standing broadcast network afloat.

Their business can feel antiquated — particularly in a marketplace with some 500 rival shows, many of them at sexier, freer-spending outlets, from HBO to Apple — until Katz and Pakosta's biggest hits are taken into account: This Is Us and Dick Wolf's Chicago franchise still draw upward of 10 million viewers, and that's before the series' online and less-urgent linear viewership gets tallied.

But NBC's co-presidents of scripted programming of nearly two years, who report to Entertainment chairman Paul Telegdy and oversee 40 employees, are chasing a moving goalpost — one that demands both linear and digital success in an ecosystem where new competitors seem to emerge daily, traditional ratings are sliding, and the dealmaking process has only grown more protracted without agents available to help hammer out writer pacts. Worse, for the first time since 2011, NBC ceded No. 1 status among adults 18-to-49 to Fox this fall, down 14 percent from 2018.

On an early November afternoon, however, Los Angeles-bred Katz, 46, and New York-born Pakosta, 49, both married, with four kids between them, were all smiles as they made their case for NBC.

Lisa, you came up through drama departments, while Tracy, you have comedy roots. How does your partnership work today?

LISA KATZ We also oversee current programming and it's natural for us to lean into drama and comedy, but we make decisions together.

TRACEY PAKOSTA And having a different perspective is really valuable.

Since you landed these jobs in February 2018, NBC has had three entertainment chiefs: Bob Greenblatt, George Cheeks and Paul Telegdy. How has the mandate changed in that time?

KATZ We all have the same idea of what the brand is and we're able to continue working as we had before. This year, we'll probably take more creative risks.

What does a creative risk for broadcast look like in 2019?

KATZ [Midseason's] Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, which feels on-brand — aspirational, character-driven, inclusive — but also is a musical and has a big conceit at the center. That feels creatively risky but also very within the NBC brand.

How is NBC's No. 2 status this fall being digested within the company?

KATZ Of course, we wish that the numbers were higher in the overnights, but we're learning how to digest it differently. You have to look at the picture from a bigger and more patient standpoint — across a whole season and a whole lifetime of a series.

A.P. Bio seems to be a prime example of that, canceled after two seasons on NBC and revived for a third on streamer Peacock.

PAKOSTA [Look at] what we did with [Michael Schur's Kal Penn comedy] Sunnyside. We realized it was a truly digital performer and now it's living [on Hulu]. We'll see how it performs and ultimately make a decision based on that. We ordered an additional episode because we wanted people to know it wasn't canceled.

The Good Place and Will & Grace are both ending. Where does NBC's comedy brand go?

PAKOSTA We continue to look for things that feed into our brand pillars: relevant, optimistic and hopeful. We want comedies that are really funny first but ultimately are about something. We're excited about The Mayor.

You bought Tina Fey and Robert Carlock's comedy The Mayor after it was initially conceived for Peacock. Have you lost shows to the streamer?

KATZ We know people are pitching both and it becomes a question of where does it feel it makes the most sense, and is there an opportunity to start at one place and finish in another? We've had that happen a couple times. Sometimes shows are better suited not for broadcast.

Peacock will be ad-supported and potentially free to all. Will that cannibalize NBC?

KATZ We only have a certain number of hours we can program, so maybe there is an opportunity for something that starts here to live there or premiere something there and bring it here. The goal will be to have more synergy.

Who wins in a tug-of-war for a show between NBC and Peacock?

PAKOSTA If the project feels right for broadcast, we can get more eyeballs than any streamer can. That's a giant argument for why we should win. It could go to Peacock after that.

How has development season been impacted by the standoff between the WGA and agencies?

KATZ The biggest challenge is deals taking longer to close. More scripts came directly to the network instead of going to the studios this year as a result. Some of the pitches that have come in haven't been as polished. Or someone will come in and pitch something we already have. So, it's more time consuming.

PAKOSTA There have been more calls coming in. And with some writers who we have relationships with, we just called them.

Do you foresee this becoming the new normal?

PAKOSTA I hope not. There are some writers who can live like this, but others are really suffering without them. I'm seeing fewer new writers coming in. It's harder on them because the more established writers have relationships with execs already.

What's the big development season trend?

KATZ We heard a lot of pitches that — in response to the current state of affairs — involve colonizing another planet, people freezing themselves (planning to wake up when it's all better) and traveling back in time to fix things. And then a lot of romantic comedy pitches because when all else fails … love!

What would you most like to reboot or revive?

PAKOSTA Parks and Recreation. Leslie Knope is a genius.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.