WME's Rick Rosen Reveals Details Behind Tim Allen's TV Return (Q&A)

Andrew McLeod

With his agency scoring more than half of fall's pickups, the TV chief talks to THR about getting the actor a new show and the changes he sees in the marketplace.

You'll have to excuse Rick Rosen if he appears on edge in the coming weeks. Rosen's agency, WME, where he heads the TV division, is responsible for nearly 60 percent of new series pickups for the 2011-12 broadcast season. Among them: Fox's New Girl, ABC's Last Man Standing and CBS' Person of Interest, all shows with entries visible on the oversized programming grid resting in the corner of his Beverly Hills office. The competitive agent, who co-founded Endeavor in 1995 with partner Ari Emanuel, among others, admits he's as nervous as his shows' creators ahead of their premieres. But on this late August day, Rosen is the picture of calm. The widowed father of two grown children (both journalists) -- who counts Dick Wolf, David E. Kelley, Jamie Tarses and Alloy Entertainment among his clients -- is bullish on the business (easy to do when you're sitting on 144 Primetime Emmy nominations). Rosen, 58, sat down with THR to discuss the medium's challenges, the season's hopefuls and what's next for Aaron Sorkin, Conan O'Brien and former client Charlie Sheen.

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What surprised you most about the shows the broadcast networks bought for this season?

You saw each network pick up something a little bit different. You've got [musical drama] Smash and [Inception-like drama] Awake for midseason at NBC. You've got [1960s-set spy drama] Pan Am and [fairy-tale drama] Once Upon a Time at ABC. CBS has [CIA thriller] Person of Interest, a really interesting procedural show with a different hook to it. It's CBS stepping outside its comfort zone a little, and they're very interested in doing more. Fox has [dinosaur actioner] Terra Nova and then [father-son drama] Touch for midseason. These are things that are a little bit different but still with the necessity of bringing in a bigger audience.

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What's the one show of yours this season that is most satisfying, either because it was a hard sell  or a particularly challenging concept?

One is Touch. We had a writer [Heroes creator Tim Kring] who had just come off writing a very successful genre piece and wrote an incredible script that has an autistic child and his father [Kiefer Sutherland] on a quest. It's powerful and beautifully written, so it was exciting to see that come to fruition. The other one is the Showtime piece Homeland [a Homeland Security psychological drama starring Claire Danes]. It was three years in the making, based on a pitch I got when I was in Tel Aviv visiting an Israeli network that we represent. When I heard the pitch, I thought it was absolutely applicable to an American format. I brought it to [24's] Howard Gordon, who loved it. He brought his partner Alex Gansa into it.

Agencies live and die by packaging fees for assembling creative elements of a series. Hasn't that business become much more competitive?

Our job is not over when the show gets sold, and we continue to work while the shows are on the air. As for the fees, there are fewer places to sell shows in the free television market. There are now two buyers in the syndicated television market -- 10 years ago, there were four or five. So the backends to those shows are less than they used to be, but it can still be significant.

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After Netflix bought 26 episodes of House of Cards for a reported $100 million in March, how many of your clients called asking for a Netflix deal?

Everyone is interested in what's next. So they're interested in Netflix, but they're also interested in what Google, Amazon and Apple are going to do. These are conversations that we have all of the time with our clients, and the industry is still sort of sifting out. It's an exciting and transformational time in television as we move from the traditional space to the digital space. There's a lot of fishing going on, and I don't think we've really seen what that next major platform is.

What is Netflix looking to buy?

Netflix is interested in library product and serialized dramas. What's exciting is that those shows have been harder to sell in traditional media. However, they're not going to be ordering 15 or 20 new shows a year, so it's a small market right now.

Are you encouraging your clients to develop for these outlets?

I encourage my clients who are writers to write. I have this saying that writers are never out of work because they can always write. Something may not sell this year; it may sell three or five years from now. Or maybe something that was written a while ago might work on a digital platform in a couple of years.

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Aaron Sorkin is doing his third behind-the-scenes-of-a-TV-show show, HBO's More as This Story Develops. What's going to surprise viewers about this one?

It's on HBO, and that will give him a little bit more creative freedom.

What does George Lopez's departure from TBS mean for Conan O'Brien?

Conan was very supportive of George and sorry that George didn't work out with TBS. But I think Conan is focused on making a funny show, and TBS has been an incredible partner. They're building a new network, and that's something people don't realize. They transformed what TBS was five years ago to where it is today. I think The Big Bang Theory coming in the fall [in syndication] will be great, and eventually there will be a new show at 12 o'clock.

WME's Tim Allen is one of several '90s TV stars, from Roseanne to Kirstie Alley, who are attempting comebacks. But at a time of lower ratings and less money, how do you explain to stars of their era that it's a different business?

I think in success they will be paid the same, and when you have an icon like Tim Allen, who is a great performer and loves to perform, it's really not that hard a conversation. A few days after the [WMA-Endeavor] merger, I approached Danny Greenberg, one of my colleagues who has worked with Tim for many, many years, and said we've got to get him back on television. Tim was obviously doing great in the movie business, so it took a while to have these conversations, and then he wanted to do something that speaks to him. He met with lots of writers, and I think this show [Last Man Standing] accurately reflects the way Tim looks at the world. If you love Tim Allen, you're going to love this show.

But at the TCAs in July, he acknowledged the "tighter, leaner ship" the networks are running.

We discussed it. I'm sure he made some jokes there, but it wasn't an arduous process for Tim. He was more concerned about enjoying the experience creatively and letting the show speak to something that meant something to him than he was about the money.

Charlie Sheen was a client for many years. What do you make of his new project, Anger Management?

I don't know much about it because I haven't talked to him or to his managers about it. Frankly, when Charlie is healthy, he's a great guy. He's been very good to me and to my family, and I just hope he gets his life together. I don't expect that show to be Two and a Half Men, frankly, but I wish him well. I really do.

What was your big break?

My first job in the industry was working for Jonathan Dolgen at Columbia Pictures out of law school. And my second big break was when ICM bought InterTalent and I met Ari [Emanuel] and David Greenblatt. That really transformed my life in a lot of ways because we ultimately started Endeavor together. Those were fun days, when I was running the packaging division at ICM and Ari was a literary agent and kept running into my office every day either resigning or demanding that we leave.

When was that moment you decided, "OK, let's leave ICM and start Endeavor"?

I remember that moment, but I don't know that I want to talk about it because it may give people around here an idea. (Laughs.) What I will say is the decision for me was a much harder one than it was for others because I was married and had children in private schools. I felt at the time that it was a big gamble -- it ultimately wasn't. My wife was incredibly supportive and urged me to do it. She and Ari, those were two pretty potent forces.            

SIDEBAR: ROSEN ON HIS MAN OBAMA IN 2012: He calls for the president to present a 'vision and sense of leadership'

Rosen has been a political junkie since he was a boy growing up in Harrison, N.Y., idolizing Bobby Kennedy. A political science major at UC Santa Barbara, he spent a summer working for a congressman in Washington the year Richard Nixon was impeached. "I was actually in the Supreme Court the day [in 1974] that the court decision came down in United States v. Nixon," recalls Rosen. The agent has remained politically active, attending fundraisers and taking his daughter to President Obama's inauguration. He admits his candidate faces big challenges in 2012. "Obama came into office with enormous expectations and created an enormous amount of excitement and hope," says Rosen. "Here we are, three years later, and we still have two wars, we still have economic problems, and that hope has turned into disappointment for a lot of the people who supported him. The challenge for him is whether he can win back that excitement -- whether he really presents a vision and a sense of leadership, which I think people are craving. It doesn't feel like he's provided enough of it at this point."