America’s Next Top TV Exec: Come on Down!

TV Pitch Count
Jacob Thomas

The growing roster of programming outlets ups the pitch count in content development game

Every Hollywood executive has a similar story. They attend a holiday dinner or party, mention what they do, and get pitched ideas by some idiot nephew, enthusiastic neighbor or irritating friend of a friend.

Some are no doubt more polite than others, but invariably they come back with a similar retort — that while from afar it might seem like anybody can do what they do, the job really isn’t as easy as it looks.

Lately, though, the success of newer players, particularly in the failure-prone world of ordering and acquiring TV shows, has dealt that argument a bit of a blow, demystifying the process of identifying popular programming or the notion that those weaned on development meetings and focus groups can claim such skill or intuition as their exclusive province.

At least when cable networks started becoming aggressive about airing original content, networks could take comfort in the idea that they were all in the TV business. But now, as distributors like Amazon and Netflix squeeze into the mix, it’s sort of like Wal-Mart suddenly deciding it has a knack for making and marketing designer handbags.

Most recently Amazon, a company known to many for the words “free shipping,” has made a credible debut as a program supplier this month with “Alpha House,” a political satire; and “Betas,” a savvy look at group of young pals behind a Silicon Valley startup.

This follows on the heels of Netflix’s maturation from a service that mailed out movies and distributed content online to a company that has become a legitimate stop for program sellers, anteing up for the Emmy-nominated “House of Cards” as well as “Orange Is the New Black” and “Hemlock Grove.” (The last show hardly belongs on that resume, but trends are better in threes.)

Nor is it just these digital players. DirecTV decided it wants to get into the programming game, and has made all sorts of interesting acquisitions — among them “Hit & Miss” and “Black Mirror” — that easily could have wound up on other premium services.

The Web, meanwhile, has become an obvious lab for cultivating new projects, even if the waste-of-time rate there surpasses the traditional failure rate for new network shows.

Like many observations about the TV business’s evolution, this one comes with a few important caveats.

For starters, most fledgling services picking up new shows have chosen to ape the formats of existing programming, so no one is reinventing the wheel. Moreover, even if the executives calling the shots might not always be the usual suspects, the people they have chosen to get into business with generally are: that is, actors, writers, producers and directors with proven track records, or at least established TV resumes.

Finally, it’s not unusual for programmers to solicit input from what amount to the minions around the office (although the kid from the mailroom has already found a way — often via some form of nepotism, frankly — to clear the moat and make it inside the castle walls).

Experience should count for something, and development execs and entertainment honchos are probably better at their jobs than a lot of these moonlighters, neophytes and dilettantes, some of whom will no doubt flee for the hills the first time they greenlight an expensive flop. Indeed, Netflix has been so taciturn regarding ratings as to inoculate itself against pesky questions about commerce, such as whether anyone but critics and a minority of award voters are actually consuming its original product.

That said, it only stands to reason that as TV explodes beyond the conventional screen and onto new platforms, the roster of those empowered to have a say would expand as well.

So when that not-terribly-bright niece or old college friend’s spouse cheerfully suggests over Thanksgiving dinner that she’s really got a great idea for a show? Dismiss her at your own peril.

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  1. Troy Richard says:

    Well one thing we can always count on – Brian Lowry, don’t ever stop writing about the business of the business. Please. Brian is like a comfy blanket or towel depending upon what wand wherever I am in the world I happen to be when away from Los Angeles. I think the true title of this article should have been, “Its All Still One Big Mess – Ain’t It?” But Lowry has a point, the fade of buying foreign gems and packing them into US hits is going out the window and the Netflicks and other web giants are still trying to get their footing in the “television business” while still trying to figure out how to make economic sense of it all. The cancel rate on the networks as at an all time high, dare I saw their creativity (and horrific marketing is at an all time low). This is no time to be looking for development talent from the kid in the mail room – this should be a time for skilled executives and SOME OLD GUARD which are still in place in more places than you think – to be listened to. Make no mistake, good development executives with real skill are hard to come by but they are out there buried under other things that have suddenly become more important as all of these companies merge into one. They should be lead not by bean counters or former New York marketing heads who are finding themselves placed more and more on top of the traditional entertainment divisions studio/networks. These counters, shall we call them, put more and more emphasis on research/focus groups and on equal footing with the ratings they tirelessly call into on the cell phones while sloberring they way over Mullholand or looking glassy eyed out onto PCH while driving in after hearing the numbers. Its not the new people that are the problem, its not even the start ups that are the problem. It is the people at the top, unwilling year after year to have the balls to change the business model that has been needed to be changed for so long so much ink has been written about we could probably lay all that print down and walk from Los Angeles to London on it. It is THOSE people who have lost their way. These “new” development execs you mention Mr. Lowry – they have always been. When a fad has happened, something works you know as well as I do suddenly everyone rushes to that side of the boat. The same can be said about the internet – another deck of the boat – just not a new one – still not yet. In english: until the networks have the balls to keep shows on longer, or people allow creatives to do their jobs fully without all the inside clutter, we will continue to see chances being taken on the less skilled development executive – because after all its their fault for the cancellations. Their fault for the ratings. Never mind a network can’t stand behind their millions, air it one more time or give it one more promotion push – no they have the ratings and research saying its dead. And the bean counters would rather hand the keys to the kingdom to the flash in the pan that seems to be working at the moment. The result? We see articles such as this about every 5 years (not from you Mr. Lowry you are less traditional and don’t recycle dumb stories as most of your trade writers do – seriously) but who could blame you for pulling this old trade story out this time around. There is something to be said for jaded development executives TOO look for ideas from wherever they come from – but they should also be given the tools TO do so. Everyone wants that hit and its easier to buy from that proven name then it is to take a chance, even if traditional execs were allowed to take chances anymore. They aren’t allowed. And the “new” companies as you so greatly pointed out sure they are taking chances, but then hiring them same folks. Besides, do we all have time to watch the latest “killer” show on such and such application? We are in an area of change one that is years behind due to a number of factors and the main issue is also what should have been the title of the story, “Can We Ever Get THe Audience Back?” The old answer: yes with good content. Content is king. Not so sure about that anymore with so much split focus. But one thing is for sure – you do have lists and lists of people who know how to develop good television shows and most of them – are sitting on the sidelines these days. Television… The Reset Age.

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