AUSTIN, Texas — The TV executive equivalent of the Power Rangers assembled Friday at the ATX festival for a candid conversation about the state of the industry.
The discussion among senior execs from HBO, FX, NBC, Hulu and Showtime ranged from the importance of maintaining a strong network brand identity to chasing projects in a fiercely competitive landscape to the group’s undisguised happiness at seeing Netflix cancel a few shows, for a change. The participants in the Presidents panel, moderated by Variety‘s Debra Birnbaum, were HBO’s Casey Bloys, Hulu’s Craig Erwich, FX’s Nick Grad, Showtime’s Gary Levine and NBC’s Jennifer Salke.
“If you don’t have a brand, you’re up s— creek. It helps you make decisions,” Grad said. Bloys agreed brand identity “is very important, but you can’t let the brand lock you in.” Salke pointed to the departure that NBC took with the drama that turned out to be a big breakout, “This Is Us.”
“We found our way to this brand that is positive and human. You have to be flexible though. It’s a feeling and quality you’re looking for,” she said.
Levine said Showtime is defined by the “breadth of shows on the air. We try to keep expanding what defines the brand of Showtime but there’s always something in the DNA of our shows that makes it Showtime.”
In contrast to the others, Erwich acknowledged that Hulu, the youngest of the outlets repped on the panel, is in flux when it comes to original programming.
“We connect the dots of what’s connecting with our audience. As a subscription service, we need to have people talking about us,” Erwich said. “Everyone at Hulu is proud of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ It set the bar in terms of quality but the bar is always being raised.”
On the subject of Peak TV, one point of agreement among the panel was how hard it is for shows to break out, especially in their first season. Grad shared that he was actually surprised that Donald Glover’s show “Atlanta” broke through in season one. “I expected it in season two. If a show is great, people will talk about it,” he said.
Salke noted how markedly the definition of success has changed as the TV landscape has fragmented. “You have to ask: is there a vision here? Do I believe in this,” she said.
Bloys said he looks to see how many “think pieces” a show generates. “It shows people are engaged,” he said. Gary Levine posited, “We live in the micro. For us, it’s carefully building a show. If you do that, they will come.” What about when shows don’t work? What makes the executives decide to cancel a show? Salke gave the following reasons as factors in that difficult decision: “Upside-down financials, low viewership, a struggling showrunner.” Levine said that there are times when internal passion for a show trumps the hard data of ratings.
“If people love a show and we love a show, the numbers may be less important,” he said. “Every show you cancel takes a little bit out of you. You get invested.” Grad quoted his boss, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf, in stating: “The audience gets a vote, we get a vote and the critics get a vote. If a show has two out of three of those, it stays on.”
When it was noted that Netflix has finally faced the hard choice of having to cancel some shows, notably “The Get Down” and “Sense8,” Grad suggested it was good for the entire industry.
“They obviously have to make decisions. [Cancelling shows] brings them back into the eco-system,” he said. “They have a lot more shots. We just have to do better.”
As television development is now a year-round effort, the panel also shared their thoughts about how hard it can be to develop new material and chase hot packages. “You have to pick and choose (projects) and take educated chances. Hulu is still scaling up. It’s fraught with risks,” Erwich said. Grad is more traditional. “I believe in the script and pilot process. We’re at 92% from pilot to series,” he said. Bloys is also a fan of the pilot process. “It’s educational. It’s valuable to get things right,” he said.
Talk turned to major movie stars migrating to television for marquee projects like HBO’s “Big Little Lies.” “Any star, if the material is good, will do a show. Anybody is gettable,” Bloys said. Levine agreed. “We’ve had success luring great actors to TV to do ongoing series. The brass ring is still the long, ongoing series. Limited series are a great complement to that, not a replacement,” he said.
Asked to share what keeps them up at night, the panel again found agreement that the devil is in the details. Salke worries about “how low the live linear rating can go.” Bloys and Levine say they find themselves thinking about various script details, casting snags, and directors for projects.
“You worry about the lack of home runs,” Grad admitted. “I’m so glad about ‘This Is Us’ because it makes people believe in it (big hits) again. I hope we can have more.”
The executives were game to discuss the shows that they most wish had landed at their networks. Grad chose the Amazon comedy “Fleabag.” Bloys voted for FX’s “The People Vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” Erwich cited HBO’s “Westworld.” Salke and Levine both pine for Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
And even the heads of networks have guilty TV pleasures. Bloys loves the “Tiny House” shows on HGTV. Erwich is addicted to Viceland’s “F–k That’s Delicious.” Salke indulges in ABC’s “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.” Grad said he and his kids love watching Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
(Pictured: “This Is Us”)