Sources with knowledge of the situation tell Variety that Pearlena Igbokwe, NBC Entertainment’s exec VP of drama development, is set to succeed Bajaria as the head of the studio.
“I want to thank Bela personally for building a strong team and working so effectively to establish Universal Television as a competitive company that produces high quality scripted series for broadcast networks as well as cable and streaming services,” said NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt. “We all wish her the very best as she takes on the next phase of her career.”
The move comes as a surprise, as Bajaria was promoted to president last year. Bajaria had two years remaining on her contract.
Bajaria’s departure had not been long in the works. Talent associated with the studio found out about the move as news broke. Bajaria was well liked by many of the showrunners and writers aligned with the studio, including Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, Michael Schur and Aziz Ansari. The immediate reaction of many industry insiders to the news was surprise.
Under Bajaria, Universal TV developed a number of well-received series such as Fox’s “Brooklyn Nine Nine”; Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Master of None”; Hulu’s “The Mindy Project” and “The Path”; and A&E’s “Bates Motel.” Universal TV also landed a medical drama series on CBS’ upcoming fall schedule, “Pure Genius.” But particularly in drama, the studio had a thin year in selling shows to NBC.
Bajaria, a former CBS exec, was recruited by Greenblatt in 2011 to dramatically ramp up activity at the studio.
At the time, the division known as Universal Media Studios had become exclusively NBC-focused and had a limited roster of creative talent under development deals. Bajaria’s mandate was to sell shows internally and externally and to infuse new creative energy into the company. Bajaria’s strong relationships and reputation as a creative exec helped Universal TV grow quickly.
But for all the critical buzz, Universal is still lacking in shows that are likely to generate significant profits for the studio in syndication or international licensing. Meanwhile, aside from Dick Wolf’s “Chicago” franchise, NBC’s biggest recent hits — “Blindspot” and “The Blacklist” — come from Warner Bros. TV and Sony Pictures TV, respectively. NBC’s plans for the upcoming 2016-17 season will see the network take its biggest swings with three new dramas — “Timeless,” “This is Us” and “The Blacklist: Redemption” — produced by outside studios.
Bajaria joined NBC as an exec VP in 2011, reporting to NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke but with a dual line to Greenblatt. There had been talk internally of growing tension between Salke and Bajaria on the management of the studio.
Before joining NBC, Bajaria enjoyed a long run as a programming executive at CBS and its CBS Television Studios arm.
Igbokwe joined NBC as head of development in 2012 from Showtime, where she spent 20 years. The move of Igbokwe — who has a long history working with Greenblatt and has worked closely since joining the network with Salke — into the top role at the studio is in part an acknowledgment of the growing importance of networks owning their own programming. This upfront season saw a continued trend toward in-house ownership, with networks aggressively going after digital stacking rights and other rights when hammering out deals with outside studios. By relying more on their own studio divisions, networks are able to more easily exploit those rights.
(Pictured: Bela Bajaria and Pearlena Igbokwe)
Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.