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

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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