The TV Exec Roundtable
Emmy season so far has been very, very good to these five power players, who came together to reveal their secret rivalries, the shows they're dying to make and how close "Mad Men" came to being canceled.
When the nominations for the 63rd Primetime Emmy Awards were announced July 14, the panelists for The Hollywood Reporter's inaugural TV Executive Roundtable had reason to pop champagne: Together, the invited execs scored a whopping 211 noms. It was a coincidence that the five whose schedules allowed them to participate a few weeks earlier included four cable programmers -- Charlie Collier (AMC), John Landgraf (FX), Sue Naegle (HBO) and David Nevins (Showtime) -- but that led to spirited debate about the medium's rivalries, the Netflix threat and how to handle unruly showrunners. As the only pure "seller" on the panel, Dana Walden (20th Century Fox Television) summed up the quintet nicely: "For people who are so darn competitive, it's a remarkably friendly group."
Is there a specific show you haven't done that you'd really like to make?
CHARLIE COLLIER Before I got here, AMC did Broken Trail, a Western with Robert Duvall, and since then we've been looking for a Western series -- and we've seen a lot. Finally we have one, Hell on Wheels, coming in November.
SUE NAEGLE I probably shouldn't have seen it, but I got a chance to. It's really good!
COLLIER Why, thank you.
DAVID NEVINS There are certain tones of comedy that are not out there that I think are big opportunities for us. There's a wide-open area of adult, R-rated comedy that feels sophisticated but is really raucous. That's doing well in the movies right now, and I think it is being underdone on television. I have ambitions in that direction.
JOHN LANDGRAF Well, ironically, that's how I would sort of define our comedy brand, so I think David and I will be mining the same gold mine for the next couple years. I'm not so much genre-focused as just trying to find something different. One of the biggest challenges all of us face is the sheer volume of scripted original programming between broadcast and premium and basic cable. To find anything that's not already on television -- even mostly not on television -- is extremely difficult.
COLLIER Wilfred [the FX comedy about a man who sees his neighbor's dog as a person] is just that. It's so smart and so good and really different. I think that's the challenge: How do you find something that doesn't look like anything else that's out there? And then, when you do it, how do you make sure you just don't try to make something else that's repetitive of your success?
DANA WALDEN It needs to have a new twist. That's what we spend a lot of time talking about as we go into the development season, which we are about to go into again, which feels like Groundhog Day! (Laughter.)
NAEGLE I don't miss that train.
WALDEN It's trying to find something that you're not developing "out of the box," just to be out of the box. Modern Family is a great traditional comedy. There are many elements about it that feel fresh and original, but it's not reinventing the wheel -- it's just executing a comedy in an incredibly special way. Glee is a bigger swing, but again, it's telling high school stories, coming-of-age stories, just with this incredible twist. [Warner Bros. TV president] Peter Roth used to say, "A great series is a conventional idea with a completely updated twist." I think that is right.
Cable networks are brands. Do you feel pressure when greenlighting series to stay within that brand or to expand it?
NEVINS That's the most relevant question for every programming decision we make. Showtime is not a narrowly defined brand, but it does have certain connotations of "adult" and "sophisticated" and having psychological depth to the shows. Unlike networks that sell advertising, we're not defined by a demographic that we sell to, so we can have shows that appeal to different groups. But we need people who will subscribe, and we need to make shows that are somebody's favorite show.
NAEGLE We talk about that a lot, too -- passionate engagement. Not every single show needs to succeed on the same level. The audience you get for True Blood doesn't have to be the audience you get for Bored to Death. But whether people are passionately engaged in the show is the most important thing. Is this someone's favorite show?
COLLIER You know, what gets all the press for AMC is the original series, but our film library inspires a lot of what we do. Walking Dead is a huge brand choice, but for 14 years we have been doing something called "Fear Fest."
NEVINS And killing with it.
COLLIER It's a two-week horror film festival, and it has some of our highest ratings every year. So how do you super-serve that audience? Because it's not for everybody. It's certainly not the Mad Men audience.
LANDGRAF We were a very male brand with The Shield, Rescue Me and Nip/Tuck, and then I said, "Well, there's got to be a female application," so we launched Dirt, The Riches and Damages. Two out of those three failed, but we got Damages out of it. Then we said, "Maybe there's a way to take a more traditional television genre and make an elevated, literary show out of it." So we launched Terriers and Lights Out and Justified. Two of those three failed, but we got Justified out of it. I don't know if you guys feel this, but things felt limitless when I originally came to the channel. It was so great not to be bound by the convention of broadcast television, and then when you have a brand you start to love it, you curate it -- but you also start to feel hedged in by it because you're like, "Well, then I have to exclude all these things." I'm still restless to expand the boundaries, and so it's this yin-yang between fulfilling the brand, nurturing it, keeping it vibrant, making sure you're talking to the people that love your channel and love your shows, but also leaving that little room for experiment: "Well, this doesn't sound like an FX show, but maybe it is, right?"
WALDEN That's so smart. It has never made sense to me that annually, network executives will say: "We don't want to hear pitches in this particular arena. It wasn't successful; it doesn't fit our brand." I thought, "Well, what if someone came in and pitched you the best possible version of that arena and executed it in the best possible way?" The brand can't be so narrowly defined that you miss out on opportunities.
COLLIER If you bring in the best version of a big idea, there's no one around this room who's going to say: "You know what? It doesn't fit in."
NAEGLE Every time someone asks, "What are you looking for, and what are you not looking for?" I say: "Please! The only thing I don't want you to bring me is a lovable-prostitute show." (Laughter.)
WALDEN What about a really good one?
NEVINS And yet you watch Gigolos.
NAEGLE I do love Gigolos. Because, you know, they are just there for each other.
WALDEN You guys were talking about that committed, passionate audience. Look at a show like Prison Break, which was not a huge ratings performer, but it was a huge international performer. That audience would find that show anywhere: They would buy it on DVD; they would download it wherever they could. Like John with Sons of Anarchy. All of us have had those shows that didn't make sense on paper, but you start with that Comic-Con group -- I remember with It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, seeing this rabid group of people waiting in line to go in and see that panel.
COLLIER You don't have to wait for Comic-Con anymore. How many of you watch your shows with a Twitter feed on your lap now?
NAEGLE I watched Game of Thrones this week -- poor Ned Stark lost his head! I sat in my bed with a computer on my lap …
NEVINS Watching people's heads explode.
NAEGLE Some people were like, "I'm so upset with you!" Others said, "I thought it was brave." I like you, Jughead. Not so much you, MonkeyBrain.
COLLIER During the final episode of The Walking Dead, the CDC explodes and they're running away, and people were saying, "Oh, my God!" and "I can't believe it!" And someone says, "Who cut the lawn?"
LANDGRAF Zombies are compelled to do two things: Eat brains and garden.
How do you guys really feel about Netflix?
LANDGRAF I don't think we really know yet. Dana and I do a show called Sons of Anarchy that [Walden's Fox 21 produces] and we air. It's a co-production with FX Productions, and its fourth season is about to air. If you looked at the ratings for the 10 p.m. Tuesday-night airings, which were the primary airings, they were up 14 percent. If you looked at the cumulative C3 rating for the week, which is what Charlie and I sell, it was down 8 percent. [C3 is a measure of commercials watched live and within three days of DVR playback.] DVRs just exploded, so a 14 percent gain in Tuesday-night viewership equals 8 percent loss in saleable ad impressions. What helps that is the fact that Sons of Anarchy is a huge DVD title, and there's lots of revenue coming in from the backend. I'm pretty sure that all five of us would say that we are in this as a passion -- we love great storytelling and great content, and we want to figure out how to allow the business to continue to evolve to support that. Particularly for Charlie and me, who are in the ad-supported side of the business, it's really tough. The DVR is making significant erosion into what we can actually sell to advertisers, so that brings in the question of the backend. With Netflix, I can't say I don't appreciate the revenue stream, but I will also say that maintaining the ecosystem of basic cable, satellite and premium cable is vital to the economics. So I look at Netflix as potentially helpful until it's causing cord-cutting erosion in that universe, at which point it's actually a leech that's hurting the organism that it's living on, which is the organism that actually creates the content that it puts in there. And so we'll just have to see. I think their move into original content in buying the Kevin Spacey project House of Cards kind of declares them in some ways as a direct competitor to Showtime and HBO.
NAEGLE I thought that was an aggressive announcement. There's value in saying to the world, "Not only are we going to swing, but we are going to swing really big." We all know it's incredibly difficult to get a series right, and to go right into series for that amount of time [26 episodes], it's a big undertaking. We looked at it and said, "OK, there's no competing with that," even though we have a great relationship with [Cards executive producer] David Fincher. I thought the script was very good. I think the original was really good. We've all seen it and loved it. So I think it's a really interesting show for them, but it certainly was a giant undertaking.
NEVINS We'll see where it ends up. I think they are putting their toe in the water, but it remains to be seen whether that's going to be the main thrust of what they do.
WALDEN These are conversations about the future and whether our business can sustain in the future. These shows that we produce for everyone here are incredibly expensive shows. They are high-end, high-quality, big ideas. … That comes at a price tag, and the studio business is under siege from every different direction. The DVD business is shrinking. Networks want to control more of the distribution beyond the typical license term. Syndication is no longer the business it once was. It's a fantastic opportunity for the slam-dunk Modern Family, but that is 2 percent or 3 percent of your business.
Mad Men is hugely important to the AMC brand, but costs emerged as a key issue in negotiations with Matthew Weiner. at what point is the expense not worth it?
COLLIER It's, how do you balance the creative need with the business need? That's all of our jobs. Mad Men is a fantastic situation. It put us on the map. It is a calling card. We wanted Matt back for three years, and we wanted the show to end -- he said seven seasons. We wanted the show to come to a conclusion on our air. So that was the focus for that negotiation.
How close was it to being canceled?
COLLIER So much of this is in the public eye and so much of it is in sound bites, and it's never about the one thing that's in the sound bite. We had two things we wanted: We wanted Matt back, and we wanted the show back -- and there was a lot of noise and other things around it, but you get bits and pieces [in the media]. It's very flattering that our negotiations are a topic of conversation, but I see in everyone's eyes here, [heated negotiations happen on] every single show, you know what I mean?
NAEGLE We were just so happy ours weren't playing out in the press.
COLLIER I should say one other thing: Matt gets blamed for things that have nothing to do with him. And that creates drama as well. Look, I'm the president of the network, and recently someone was blaming Matt for the scheduling move of the show to 2012. Well, that has nothing to do with Matt -- that's a network decision. We made it because we are achieving that balance of getting Matt back on and getting the show to conclusion and paying for it and making a business model, and so the buck stops with me. But you get the sound bite, and it says, "Oh, you know, blame whoever, you know … "
WALDEN Well, there is clearly the perception that the negotiation was so stalled and so delayed as a result of what Matt was trying to negotiate for himself.
NEVINS Set the record straight, man.
COLLIER Well, that's what's unfortunate. Look, the buck stops with me. It really does. When that decision is made to move Mad Men, it's not Matt's fault. The network has to create the balance between the business and the creative, and what's great is we have Mad Men coming back until its conclusion. To me, that's the best. It's not about the sound bite.
David, how would you describe the rivalry between HBO and Showtime as you pursue more male-oriented series?
NEVINS It's all about me and Sue. (Laughter.)
NAEGLE What's the e-mail that I sent you on your second day on the job? I'm like: "Welcome to the job. Get ready; it's going to be a kung fu match."
WALDEN I think I should answer this question. (Laughter.)
NEVINS Personally, there is a lot of respect going back and forth between Sue and I. We've known each other and worked together for, you know, 15 years.
NAEGLE You're going to age us.
NEVINS The truth is, we do well when HBO does well. Because of the way that cable is sold, our businesses are quite tied to each other. It's a friendly rivalry.
NAEGLE I feel like there's actually a friendly rivalry between all of us. The Killing, we didn't get a chance to hear the pitch because we didn't have a template deal with the studios. But we had been following the format; we were dying to have it. We actively engaged on The Walking Dead. Justified is a pitch I really wanted to hear. To me, Justified looks like a perfect FX show. Would it have been a perfect HBO show? Maybe it would have turned out slightly differently, but I don't know.
NEVINS There is a certain amount of rooting for the good stuff to win. We all do it that way.
WALDEN I want some good stuff to fail, but I'm a bad person.
We asked at the THR Showrunners Roundtable to name the most outrageous note they received from a network. So we'll ask you: What was the most outrageous response you've received from a showrunner to a legitimate note?
NEVINS I've just got to go back through the library.
WALDEN It's got to be Mitch Hurwitz [Arrested Development], right? He was hilarious.
NEVINS But he would always listen to a note. That's the thing.
WALDEN Mitch is lovely to work with, but he will engage you for a half-hour on your notes. You'll have a lively conversation, and he'll agree with some and disagree and push back -- and do none! Zero. But it seemed so productive!
NAEGLE David Simon [Treme] told me this story. I think this was on Homicide -- it was not on HBO, I'm praying -- but when they would get notes on Homicide, they'd be listening to the speaker box [in the writers room, and they would run around and do what they call an "antler dance." They put their fingers in the air, and they just danced like crazy deer. So the executive is talking about these notes that they -- believe me -- labored over, thinking: "Is this really a thoughtful response? Do I believe what I'm saying?" Meanwhile, these writers are like, "Uh-huh, sounds really good," while pretending they're crazy animals. So I was just at Boardwalk Empire with Timmy [Van Patten] and [showrunner] Terry [Winter]. They were just about to do a notes session with our executive, and I walked out and was like, "I do not want to poke my head in and see this!" (Naegle does the antler dance.)
NEVINS That's why, by the way, it's so much better to do it in person. You look someone in the eye.
NAEGLE I think about that antler dance a lot.
WALDEN [Producer] Henry Bromell told me on Homicide that they delivered a great episode very early on in the show, and the network president said, "I have just one note: Do we have to see a dead body?" And Henry says, "It's called Homicide."
Charlie Collier, AMC
29 Emmy noms, led by Mad Men
John Landgraf, FX
6 Emmy noms, led by Justified
Sue Naegle, HBO
104 Emmy noms, led by Mildred Pierce
David Nevins, Showtime|
21 Emmy noms, led by The Borgias
Dana Walden, 20th TV
51 Emmy noms, led by Modern Family