Bela Bajaria to head UMS

CBS programming exec to oversee Peacock's production arm

As he rebuilds the NBC broadcast network, Bob Greenblatt is taking on the additional challenge of broadening the scope of the Peacock’s network TV production wing, Universal Media Studios.

The NBC Entertainment chairman confirmed Monday that UMS will be restructured into a stand-alone unit at NBCUniversal, rather than a division of the NBC network, and will seek to produce series for outside networks as well as supplying the Peacock. Longtime CBS exec Bela Bajaria will oversee UMS as exec veep, reporting to Greenblatt.

“She is the breath of fresh air we need as we start to reorganize UMS into a studio that will continue to produce series for NBC as well as other networks,” Greenblatt said.

UMS also confirmed it has beefed up its talent roster with a new overall deal for Greg Daniels, steward of “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” and a new pact with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Gary Sanchez Prods., which had not previously been at NBC. Peacock also has a new pact with Sean Hayes’ Hazy Mills Prods.

Greenblatt was known to have had his eye on Bajaria for the UMS post for some time. But his hands were tied for the past few months by what is believed to have been a temporary no-poaching clause in his exit agreement with CBS Corp. following his exit as Showtime entertainment prexy in July 2010. Bajaria had been with CBS since 1996, most recently serving as senior veep of cable programming for CBS TV Studios and senior veep of movies and minis for the Eye network.

In expanding the purview of UMS, Greenblatt is bucking the trend among network-affiliated production entities; ABC Studios and CBS TV Studios in recent years have largely focused on supplying their sibling nets.

UMS has also been laser-focused on NBC in the three years since its operations were formally folded into the NBC network umbrella, and cable production was carved out into a separate unit, Universal Cable Prods. Among the Big Four congloms, only 20th Century Fox TV has consistently played the field among the broadcast nets. Warner Bros. TV and Sony Pictures TV, on the other hand, use their free-agent status as a calling card with talent.

Fox’s long-running “House,” which UMS inherited following the 2004 merger of NBC and Universal Studios, is proof positive to Greenblatt that NBCU needed to get back into producing for other nets.

“It’s a good business, but it was left to die on the vine,” Greenblatt told Variety.

UMS’ expansion comes at a time of uncertainty for the primetime series production business, with Web streaming and other forms of digital distribution upending the traditional profit equation for the low volume of series that manage to survive more than a season to become valuable in off-network syndication.

On the other hand, international sales remain robust for shows, mostly dramas, that travel well overseas. And a bona fide scripted primetime hit is still a huge moneymaker. Witness the hundreds of millions of dollars that Warner Bros. TV will bring in through syndie sales for its CBS laffer “The Big Bang Theory.” Same goes for 20th with its ABC hit “Modern Family.”

If Greenblatt and Bajaria can pick the right programs, they’re betting the reward will outweigh the risk of deficit-financing series that ultimately don’t get picked up.

But Greenblatt cautioned that the studio is unlikely to generate too much activity for outside nets in the coming development season; the focus will be on ramping up for next year’s cycle, he said.

Greenblatt has known Bajaria through network TV circles for years, and the two worked together on the 2005 CBS biopic “Elvis,” which Greenblatt produced.

Bajaria had run the Eye’s tele­pic division since 2002. , overseeing more than 130 longform productions including the Hallmark Hall of Fame pics, Tom Selleck’s “Jesse Stone” series and the controversial mini “The Reagans.”More recently she guided CBS TV Studios’ push into cable dramas. Series she shepherded included A&E’s first scripted drama, “The Cleaner,” and “Common Law,” which earned a series order last month from NBCU’s USA Network.

UMS’ new pact with Daniels calls for him to develop animated and reality series for the network in addition to traditional scripted fare. Greenblatt said he hoped Daniels would focus on a primetime toon, an area he knows well as a co-creator of the long-running Fox skein “King of the Hill.”

The pact with Gary Sanchez Prods., home of HBO’s raunchy Danny McBride starrer “Eastbound and Down,” promises to introduce a new flavor of comedy to the Peacock’s portfolio.

Hayes, the former “Will & Grace” star who has focused on producing in recent years with series including NBC’s upcoming “Grimm,” also has been coaxed back in front of the camera.

“Sean is a friend, and I really think it’s time for him to star in a comedy again,” said Greenblatt, who said the concept is still coming together. Hayes and his Hazy Mills partner Todd Milliner also are working on an unscripted gameshow for NBC that will feature an appearance by Tom Hanks.

(Andrew Wallenstein contributed to this report.)

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