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The view outside Susan Rovner’s 11th-floor corner office — a now-bustling Universal Studios and the surrounding San Fernando Valley — is not unlike her new job. There’s a lot to take in.
The married mom of three, who spent the past 22 years at Warner Bros. supplying Hollywood with such massive hits as Watchmen, Gossip Girl and 2 Broke Girls, left her longtime home in October for the newly created role of chairman of entertainment content at NBCUniversal TV and Streaming. She now oversees a broadcast network (NBC), a streamer (Peacock) and a six-channel portfolio of cable networks. “There’s just so much programming coming at me,” says Rovner, settling into one of her new couches for what she thinks might be the first time. “It can be a bit like whack-a-mole.”
Rovner has been commuting in from her Encino home more frequently as she preps for NBCU’s May 17 upfront presentation. It will be a coming out of sorts for the programmer, who’s kept a low profile since her career began at a string of since-shuttered talent agencies. But before that, she sat down for her first lengthy interview since taking her new job.
You’re the first person to have this job. What’s the mandate?
My mandate is to grow original content for Peacock, bring the ratings at NBC back up to No. 1, and maintain the health of our linear cable networks. Taking this job was about the challenge of becoming a programmer and a buyer. It’s so many platforms, but I get to be a part of the NBC legacy and building Peacock. And I’m a true Bravo-holic.
New York magazine recently ran a piece acknowledging that a lot of Bravo programming doesn’t align with 2021 standards for how we look at class and race. How do you approach change at a brand with such a well-defined identity?
The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City is an interesting look at how we can evolve. It still has opulence — Bravo fans do want to see this life behind the golden beads — but it has a much larger range of women. Not everyone has as much wealth. It also deals with religion. That all appeals to the Bravo audience, because that show premiered abnormally well.
Similarly, E! is essentially the Keeping Up With the Kardashians network. What does it look like once the show ends in June?
Well, I didn’t know that they were leaving the network when I took the job. (Laughs.) We’re going to have some new talent announcements soon. E! is going to lean into fandom, a celebration of Hollywood and fashion, while moving away from snarkiness.
How much room is there for scripted on cable at this point?
Not as much. We will still be doing scripted for USA — returning to the “Characters Welcome” days — but not as much as in the past. E! and Bravo will not be doing scripted.
If I were coming in to pitch you, should I have an idea of where my project might go?
You do not need to worry about where it’s for. When I was at Warner Bros., because we sold to everyone, my approach was always, “Give me the idea that you’re passionate about, and I’ll figure out where to sell it.” I’m applying the same thing here. We’ll do that work of putting it through our filters to see if it’s better for Peacock or NBC.
What is the difference between an NBC show and a Peacock show?
At NBC, it’s about finding shows that are broad, commercial, relatable and more closed-ended. For Peacock, it’s about bingeable, urgent shows and events. I want bigger ideas — more elevated, more premium — to bring people to the service.
What lasting change will we see from COVID-19’s impact on the traditional broadcast calendar?
When I was producing, the idea that we were all competing for the same actors, directors and talent all at the same time just felt so antiquated and silly. Moving away from a traditional pilot season is going to have its ups and downs, but ultimately it’s going to be better for the creative.
What gives you reason to be optimistic about upfronts this year?
I’m over-the-moon excited about La Brea on NBC, which I’d describe as Jurassic Park meets Lost. I think it can be a huge event for network television.
That doesn’t sound closed-ended.
It isn’t, but there is a mystery of the week baked into each episode. Not everything on NBC is going to be a procedural.
On the NBC side, you inherited a brand whose previous regime was accused of having cultural issues. How do you assuage people coming into a situation like that?
I believe strongly that you can be both successful and respectful. Obviously, I needed to make sure that people understood that. I really believe in the word “kindness,” and I do think that it can coincide with success.
Tell me about the timing of leaving Warner Bros. Weeks after you took this job, your longtime boss Peter Roth announced he was leaving
It was a bit of a coincidence, but I’d been watching the world change. Warner Bros. was changing. So when I got called about this, things just sort of lined up.
What shows make you jealous?
I loved The Great so much. And I wish we had WandaVision or, you know, The Mandalorian. Marvel or Star Wars, I’d take either. (Laughs.)
No one is jealous of the situation you inherited with the Golden Globes. As the HFPA reaches its deadline to institute change — hiring POC members, addressing so many other issues — do you think it’s still salvageable? [Note: THR spoke with Rovnver before the HFPA board released plans for proposed changes; NBCU issued a statement supporting the outline, though it’s yet to be approved by HFPA membership.]
Well, this is my first time dealing with the Globes. I obviously knew some of the rumors. But hearing about what’s actually happening at the HFPA, it’s definitely broken. We’re coming to the end of those two months they had to do something. I hope they make real change.
Is there a scenario in which the Globes don’t air on NBC in 2022?
It’s possible. Every option is on the table.
Outside of optics, awards-show ratings are in a tailspin. Do you think it’s a blip?
They are expensive. All ratings are declining, and I don’t know if this is a symptom of COVID. Is it this moment in time or is it forever? We have another year before we get a real sense of that. But if it’s not getting good ratings, I don’t know that we’re going to want it — even if they get cheaper.
Elon Musk, somewhat controversially, is hosting Saturday Night Live on May 8. Do you hear about that from Lorne Michaels, someone on his team, or the internet?
It was Lorne. (Laughs.) I talk to him a lot, actually. It’s been one of the most fun parts of this job. He has amazing stories to tell, and I learn something from every conversation we have. But [Musk] is going to be interesting TV. I’ll be in the studio for that one. Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appears in the May 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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