The TV industry is experiencing a brain drain, with all roads leading to Netflix.
On Wednesday the streaming service announced that it had hired Bela Bajaria, former president of Universal Television and a rising star in TV’s executive ranks, to spearhead content licensing, co-productions, and unscripted development for the streaming service. She becomes the most recent — and the most high-profile — traditional TV executive to take up with the industry’s new employer of choice.
Netflix has been on a hiring spree in the last two years, nabbing executives at a rate that has inspired more than just grumbling — it prompted a lawsuit by 21st Century Fox, which claims that Netflix broke the law when it poached two mid-level execs who were under contract. Powered by deep pockets, Netflix has recruited a fleet of former VPs and SVPs from brands such as Fox 21, Chernin Group, Broadway Video, Nickelodeon, Universal TV, Spike TV, Gaumont, AMC, Electus, Skydance, the CW, and more. They come to help build and service the content library of a company that is trying, as FX Networks CEO John Landgraf noted in August at the TCA summer press tour, “to compete with the entire MVPD system and all of its channels on a global basis.”
It is also a company that this week saw its stock price climb to its highest point in six months, fueled by Wall Street rumors of a possible acquisition by The Walt Disney Co. While staffing up and ramping up its programming slate — according to FX Networks research, Netflix had, by July, premiered or ordered 71 original scripted series — at rates that may not be sustainable, Netflix has built a market capitalization of more than $44 billion.
Meanwhile, Netflix’s body-snatching has made more shallow an executive talent pool already diluted by ever-increasing number of buyers in scripted television programming. Landgraf predicted in August that 2017 would see more than 500 original scripted series across broadcast, cable and streaming — up from 419 in 2015. Much of that growth will come from Netflix, but not all. Networks that only recently ventured into scripted, such as WGN America and Pop, have not backed down, and instead are continuing to develop. There are more buyers than ever in the television marketplace, and they’re not just competing for content — they’re competing for employees.
Bajaria’s next move was a favorite topic of speculation all summer in industry circles, where she was rumored to be talking to everyone from Apple to ABC. Despite having been ousted from NBCUniversal on the heels of a disappointing upfront-sales season and amid murmurs of a rift with NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke, she was considered one of the hottest free agents on the executive market. Having built a showrunner stable at Universal TV exemplified by the likes of Tina Fey, Jason Katims and Aziz Ansari, she is viewed as a magnet for top talent.
Her hiring into a role that appears to have little to do with her proven strengths — her five years at NBC’s studio arm gave her little experience with licensing or unscripted programming — speaks to Netflix’s allure, and to its willingness to do whatever it takes to land the executives it wants. The job at Netflix that Bajaria would appear most naturally suited for, developing original scripted content, is already done by executive Cindy Holland. And as the streaming service has become the most aggressive buyer of new series in the business, Holland’s clout has only grown. What Bajaria signed up for is a souped-up version of the less sexy job previously held by acquisitions chief Sean Carey, who departed Netflix quietly after five years.
Bajaria’s Netflix move follows the decision by another well-regarded creative exec, former ABC comedy chief Samie Falvey, to bolt broadcast for digital. Falvey left the Alphabet in August for a job as chief content officer at a new digital venture from AwesomenessTV and Verizon. Also this summer, CBS held onto up-and-comer Julie McNamara by creating a new role for her as original content chief at streaming service CBS All Access.
A growing number of TV’s most promising minds are leaving the business’ cornerstone brands in favor of those intent on upending it. That won’t do anything to help those companies still struggling to adapt to a changing landscape — and facing down an increasingly well-armed competitor.