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This story first appeared in the Aug. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Three years ago this month, Bert Salke decided it was time for change. After more than a decade as a producer (Emmy-nominated Boomtown), he became president of studio Fox 21. Salke, 51, quickly expanded the cable arm of 20th Century Fox TV with the guidance of his bosses, 20th TV chairmen Dana Walden and Gary Newman. Now he and a staff of 16 boast a portfolio of nine projects, including Showtime’s Emmy winner Homeland, FX’s Sons of Anarchy and the upcoming witch-trials drama Salem (WGN America), as well as high-profile pilots from Ryan Murphy (HBO’s Open) and Howard Gordon (FX’s Tyrant). “My taste tends to be male, edgy, a bit darker and a little bit snobby,” he says. He shares his passion for TV with his wife of 15 years, NBC Entertainment president Jennifer, whom he once reported to as a producer when she was at 20th TV. The couple lives in Beverly Hills with their son, 14, and twin daughters, 13. Salke spoke to THR in his office on the 20th lot, which, he jokes, is a shrine to both Homeland and his hometown Philadelphia’s sports teams.
The Hollywood Reporter : What’s the biggest challenge in your job?
Bert Salke: We look for people who have really strong visions, and we feel a responsibility to help them achieve them. At the same time, we have to sit on them and guide them to where the network wants them. It’s a tough balance. The other thing that’s very difficult is that these cable networks feel — whether it’s true or not — that they are so branded. So a David Nevins [at Showtime] will say, “What’s good for HBO is not good for me.” And Sue [Naegle] and Michael [Lombardo of HBO] will say, ‘What works for John Landgraf, that’s for FX.’ Networks are different than cable. The odds are that if it’s relevant at ABC, it’s also relevant at CBS and NBC. With cable, there are two steps: First, do we like the idea and the auspices; second, who is it for? I hate that because I’ve heard some of the best ideas of my career over the last three years and every once in a while with one of those ideas, there’s only one place to go sell it.
THR: What do you know now that you wish you knew as a producer?
Salke: It’s funny because Chris [Brancato, his former business partner] and I sold so much. We were just machines that way, and that was good for the network or studio that counted on us to sell 10 things, and we were about pleasing them. We’d walk into a network and say, “What are you guys looking for this year?” Wrong question. I don’t care, it just is. And by the way, we’d do it and those pilots would get made. But that’s what we did wrong.
THR: Networks such as AMC and FX increasingly push to own their programs rather than license them from outside studios. Is this a concern?
Salke: That’s as big a challenge as anything I have. But here’s our business model: Be in business with the best writers in town. That’s our model. It’s not, “Try nine different things, buy playwrights, buy big IP.” So until those networks start saying, “We’re going to put out this much money to have a stable of creatives that we can use,” they have to go through me. They have to go through the studios. They do have something that’s really valuable — the ability to say, “We’re going to make your show. Come here, Alex Gansa. Come here, Meredith Stiehm.” But until they begin guaranteeing that they’re putting on television shows, which certainly they can do long before we can, we’re going to be deeper in business with talent.
THR: Does that put pressure on you to ink more overall deals with talent?
Salke: Sometimes it might be about an overall deal, sometimes it’s about buying a book that nobody else wants to buy. Sometimes it’s about saying, “What do you most want to do?” When I am fired from this company, and I will be, it will be because of prolific support financially for our shows. I run a business, and I’m really mindful of it … but this is a company that — like Netflix, frankly — walks it like it talks it financially. The support here for those people that we most believe in, and I’m going to get into trouble for this one, is endless. I haven’t been in a situation that I have lost [a project] ever at this company because of money.
THR: If you could lock one writer who isn’t currently at Fox 21 into a deal, who would you go after?
Salke: Vince Gilligan [creator of Breaking Bad] is No. 1 by far. I almost hate to say it because he is everybody else’s, too. And there’s a reason for it. I like Terence Winter [Boardwalk Empire] a lot. A lot. And I’m a very big Michelle Ashford [Masters of Sex] fan. Those are three of the big ones.
THR: Studios that lock talent into expensive deals aren’t always interested in letting that talent work in cable, which isn’t as lucrative as broadcast. How much does this happen at 20th and Fox 21?
Salke: Well, Ryan Murphy has a show at HBO, Howard Gordon has two shows [Homeland on Showtime, Tyrant at FX]. Look, there’s no question this business is built to a large extent on network business. That’s an animal that eats up programming on a ridiculous level, and you do have to feed it. That said, when you’re Ryan Murphy or Howard Gordon or Shawn Ryan, I think you feel empowered to walk in and say, “Sure, I’m going to make a deal here, and I’m going to do a network show. But I’m not coming here unless I can do both.” And that’s really OK with us. I’ll tell you something, Homeland, Sons of Anarchy, Tyrant make it OK. There’s an acknowledgment about the ways to exploit this stuff and the different platforms and what it means financially, but more than that, talent attracts talent.
THR: Between Amazon, Netflix and Hulu, there’s no shortage of new distributors. What’s the one that most excites you?
Salke: It has to be Netflix. They’ve shown a desire for talent and material at a different level.
THR: And a willingness to spend?
Salke: That’s a large part of it. That’s saying, “We’re going to put our money where our mouth is.” You’re going to watch Orange Is the New Black because they did House of Cards and because it’s a place where Ron Howard and Brian Grazer entrusted Arrested Development. Frankly, it’s kind of brilliant, and they’re a pleasure to deal with. I won’t say which ones, because I want to work in this business, but I can tell you that some of those other platforms are not so great to work with.
THR: 20th TV operates two cable studios, Fox 21 and Fox TV Studios. What’s the difference?
Salke: These things can’t help but be about the personalities of the people that work there. David Madden is supremely good at what he does, but I do feel that our tastes are a little bit different — although I really like The Killing and The Americans, so [that difference is] less and less. David’s been around forever, he’s extremely smart and people know what that [studio] is and how he works. For better or for worse, people know how I work. We’re different energies, and frankly it has to do with relationships and what you bring to the table. So there are people that like David’s style and they go there. That’s what it’s become.
THR: Your critical darling Homeland suffered some backlash in season two. What were the conversations going into season three?
Salke: That group holds themselves to a standard that is crazy. The challenge is to transfer to “Homeland 2.0.” There are bigger developments character-wise this year than there have been. The best Homeland script that I’ve ever seen writing-wise was this year. Best one I’ve ever seen. And I think they’re playing at that level. It’s a more emotional show this year, and 2.0 means that other characters are going to come in. It’s a very big development season for Mandy Patinkin‘s Saul, and for Quinn [Rupert Friend], too. And as opposed to the way some things went down last year, there are definitive answers here — and a development that nobody is thinking about that is personal and awesome.
THR: Salem will air on an unproven network, WGN America. What is the appeal?
Salke: We love the idea of starting a network. How many opportunities do you have like that? When anybody talks about this type of adventure, they talk about The Shield at FX. That show was transformative; it branded that network. That’s what we want to do. We want to make WGN the Salem network.
THR: Give us an example of a time when it was great to have a wife in the same business — and when it was not so great.
Salke: There’s something really nice about knowing we’re in it together. And she’s so well-loved as a person — forget about talented at her job. There’s a lot of bad stuff too, which is overshadowed by how much we love each other. The easiest one to recall is a David Schulner script that Michael Cuesta directed here [at 20th back in 2008], The Oaks, that we both wanted. And then she was very, very interested in Tyrant for broadcast. Very interested. That wasn’t a great thing with us; it was [always] going to go to cable. … So yeah, the worst are those kind of situations that really don’t happen so much now that I’m in cable.
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