HOLLYWOOD – Power and prestige come automatically when you’re the top programmer at a major network. Yet for NBC Entertainment prexy Garth Ancier, those perks pale in comparision to what he says is the best part of his job.
It’s just downright fun.
“I know it might sound corny,” he laughs, almost apologetically. “But the process (of network television) is so much fun: from the idea for a show, to the script, to the casting, to crafting the whole thing, to putting it on the air and promoting it. Then, when you see it become a part of the American culture — it’s amazing.”
As Ancier speaks of his love for television, his words display the sort of genuine enthusiasm one would expect from a young exec just starting out in the biz.
Instead, that passion comes from a 41-year-old showbiz warhorse who began his media career nearly three decades ago as a radio reporter for an NBC station in his hometown of Trenton, NJ — and now ranks as only the second person (other than Fred Silverman) who has run three broadcast networks.
“He loves television,” says Ancier’s boss, NBC West Coast prexy Scott Sassa. “He’s a student of it and he totally understands it.”
Ancier has other loves, of course.
He’s a serious devotee of Apple computers, tossing away old models as quickly as Steve Jobs and co. can roll out new ones. A few years ago, the company even selected Ancier as one of a handful of hard-core Applephiles; other so-called Applemasters include Richard Dreyfus and Michael Crichton.
Ancier has also developed a huge interest in wine, attending regular meetings of a Hollywood wine club and garnering attention from oenophile mags such as Wine Spectator.
At a recent dinner with a reporter, Ancier studied the wine list longer than the regular menu, scrutinizing each selection as closely as some network toppers examine the overnight Nielsen numbers.
But his first love remains television. Any doubts about that were erased last year when, after having spent nearly five years establishing the WB as the fifth network, he had to decide his next career move.
His choices: staying in television (by remaining at the Frog net or jumping to NBC) or significantly increasing his personal wealth by pursuing various opportunities in cyberspace.
He chose, of course, to go to NBC — a move which Ancier agrees demonstrates just how devoted he is to the small screen.
“I don’t think you stay in television unless you really love television,” he says. “Because the opportunities are much greater in the Internet business than in television, certainly economically.”
Leaving the WB for NBC wasn’t easy, though.
Ancier has always seemed most comfortable at start-up operations, having launched the Frog net, Fox Broadcasting and “The Ricki Lake Show.” Taking a job at the Peacock meant joining the ranks of the Big Three — the network establishment.
But as Sassa sees it, Ancier “wanted to be at NBC. He wanted to make NBC number one.”
Almost as importantly, there was a natural symmetry about the NBC position: Ancier’s first job after graduating from Princeton in 1979 was working for legendary Peacock programmer Brandon Tartikoff as a junior NBC exec.
He landed the post by mounting an impressive lobbying effort, one marked by the bold step of walking into Tartikoff’s Burbank office and asking to schedule a meeting with the program chief. He didn’t have a copy of his resume, so he gave Tartikoff’s assistant a copy of a January 1979 People magazine which contained a brief article about “Focus on Youth,” a nationally syndicated radio talkshow which Ancier exec produced and hosted while a student at Princeton University.
“I told her I’d love to talk to him and that I was staying at the Huntington Hotel (now the Ritz-Carlton in Pasadena),” Ancier remembers.
Tartikoff must have been impressed: He agreed to the meeting and ultimately chose Ancier over a number of other well-qualified candidates, including a young Kerry McCluggage, now chairman of the Paramount Television Group.
Ancier spent seven years at NBC, working his way up to veep of current comedy programs. The latter role allowed him to be part of the production of nearly three dozen sitcoms, including classics such as “The Cosby Show,” “The Golden Girls,” “Family Ties” and “Cheers.”
His success at NBC caught the eye of Barry Diller and Jamie Kellner, who in 1986 were looking for someone to run the programming division of Rupert Murdoch’s still unborn Fox network. Kellner, saying he was “thinking outside of the box,” asked Ancier to interview for the position.
“I remember sitting down, talking to him about programs we liked as kids. He had real strong opinions, and a real love for television,” recalls Kellner, now CEO of the WB.
Diller was equally impressed by the young NBC comedy exec.
“Some initial meetings with people are vague, or you have to have them explain things several times,” says Diller. “Garth Ancier is one person who walks into your office and — even at the age of 27 — within ten minutes you say, ‘This is a pro.’ When you see it, it’s like a searchlight right in your eyes.”
Diller and Kellner’s bet on Ancier paid off. As one of the founders of the Fox network, and later as prexy of the Fox Entertainment Group, Ancier helped develop a slew of shows which defined television for a whole generation of young viewers, greenlighting landmark hits such as “The Simpsons,” “In Living Color,” “Married… with Children” and “Beverly Hills, 90210.”
While Ancier is quick to point out that it’s those shows’ creators who deserve the bulk of the credit, Diller says Ancier’s fundamental love for and understanding of the small screen was a vital part of Fox’s early success.
“He has perfect pitch about television,” Diller explains. “He has a remarkable and very pure instinct about it.”
After getting Fox off the ground, Ancier left the weblet in 1989 for a stint as prexy of network TV production at The Walt Disney Studios. A year later, he ankled the Mouse House; soon after, Diller brought him back to Fox with an overall deal.
By October 1991, Ancier had largely gotten out of the network business. He signed on as a volunteer for the Democratic National Committee, advising the party on ways to jazz up the TV presentation of the 1992 nominating convention.
“You know that giant videowall behind the podium? That was my idea,” Ancier says, taking pride in creating an innovation which is now standard at political conventions.
After the convention, Ancier officially ankled Fox and plunged into the world of independent production. Within months, he would create “The Ricki Lake Show,” a youth-oriented talker which forever changed the way syndie talkshows were produced.
As much as he enjoyed being a hands-on producer, by 1994 Ancier found himself back in the network-building business after his old Fox partner Kellner asked him to help launch another web: The WB.
While early attempts to duplicate Fox’s original edginess flopped — remember “Muscle”? — the Frog net quickly found its groove, establishing itself as a home for creative, feature-quality dramas such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Dawson’s Creek.”
Kellner says Ancier’s success at the WB stemmed in part from his ability to think beyond the right now and put programming decisions in a larger context.
“A lot of (TV execs) his age don’t look back historically. He’s been much more of a student of the business,” says Kellner. “Even though he’s younger, he has the same sort of understanding of things as people 10 or 20 years older.”
Ancier has something else rare among Hollywood execs: A reputation as a genuinely decent guy with remarkably few well-known enemies. There may be plenty of people who don’t believe Ancier is a programming genius, but it’s hard to find folks who genuinely hate him.
Diller says it’s no mystery why Ancier alienates so few people.
“He has good manners. It’s a simple as that,” the media baron says.
Ancier insists that he does have his detractors — but also admits he does whatever he can to stay off other peoples’ enemies lists.
“There are definitely people who hate me, I’m sure. In this job, you’re going to have to cancel shows and say no to people,” he says.
“But my philosophy is to try to treat everyone the way I want to be treated. I totally believe in the idea that good karma begets good karma, and bad karma begets bad karma. I’ve always lived my life that way.”