One year ago, Bela Bajaria was promoted, named president of Universal Television, the studio she had been running since 2011, having successfully revitalized a desiccated production operation. On Monday, she was let go with two years remaining on her contract.
The departure of Bajaria, long one of TV’s rising-star executives, from Universal Television, was met with initial surprise by industry insiders. But the seemingly sudden split was the result of dissatisfaction that had long been building between the NBCUniversal broadcast TV studio and its mothership network.
The precipitating action for Bajaria’s exit was a lackluster showing in May’s broadcast upfronts. Universal TV sold seven scripted series for the 2016-17 broadcast season — down from 12 last season, and the least of any studio linked to a broadcaster. But most damaging to Bajaria’s cause was the limited number of pickups from NBC.
Of the six Universal shows that NBC picked up for 2016-17, only one — straight-to-series comedy “The Good Place” — is slated for fall. NBC’s two big autumn drama entries, “Timeless” and “This is Us,” hail from Sony Pictures Television and 20th Century Fox Television, respectively.
NBC’s ratings rise under NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt — the network finished second to CBS in the 18-49 demo after besting all competitors the previous two seasons — has been fueled largely by NFL football, “The Voice” and the success of “The Blacklist” and “Blindspot,” the network’s two highest-rated drama series, both of which hail from outside studios.
Under Bajaria, Universal TV has excelled at the toughest challenge a modern studio faces — selling to outside networks. At Fox, the studio has Mike Schur’s “Brooklyn Nine Nine”; at Netflix it has Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s “Master of None”; At Hulu, Mindy Kaling’s comedy “The Mindy Project” and drama “The Path.” Its most impressive sale this upfront season was a medical drama spearheaded by Jason Katims, “Pure Genius,” which landed a fall slot on CBS with CBS Television Studios signed on to co-produce.
That a medical drama produced by Katims — the “Parenthood” creator who has a history with NBC — went to the network’s fiercest competitor points to the disconnect between NBC and Universal TV. Katims is at the forefront of an impressive stable of talent the Bajaria brought to Universal. But that roster has yet to turn out a big hit for NBC. That led to strain and conflicting views of the studio’s priorities.
For sure, Bajaria came in with a mandate to sell broadly to other outlets, as frequently articulated by Greenblatt. The shift at Universal TV, where NBC exec VP of drama Pearlena Igbokwe is expected to be named president, raises the question of whether that mandate has changed.
The exception to the Universal TV-NBC divide has been producer Dick Wolf’s “Chicago” franchise — “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago PD,” “Chicago Med,” and next season’s “Chicago Justice.” But the Universal TV-based Wolf Entertainment operation is a well-oiled machine that has been turning out series for decades. Bajaria’s team had relatively little involvement with those shows, by multiple accounts.
NBC attempted to address the rift between network and studio last year in the executive reshuffle that saw Bajaria promoted. Among the changes made was Tracey Pakosta’s shift from comedy chief at Universal TV to senior VP of comedy development at NBC. The move was in part meant to build a bridge between Universal TV and NBC.
That bridge was not strong enough. Now Bajaria has moved on, and Igbokwe is near a deal to take over as head of Universal TV. Igbokwe is a well-regarded executive, but one who has faced a steep learning curve after joining NBC in 2012 following 20 years at Showtime.
NBC is counting on her longstanding ties to Greenblatt and close working relationship with NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke to help align Universal TV more closely with NBC in an era where total vertical integration is a constant aspiration.