Longtime Warner Bros. TV executive Susan Rovner has emerged as a top candidate for the job at NBCUniversal overseeing programming for NBC, USA Network, fledgling streamer Peacock and the rest of the company’s entertainment cable networks.
Sources close to the situation say that as of Wednesday Rovner had not engaged in formal negotiations with NBCU and that she is one of several people under consideration by NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell and Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBCUniversal Television and Streaming. But there is no doubt Rovner is in the mix, which means the veteran studio executive may soon face the choice of moving to a new senior post in the Comcast universe or staying at Warner Bros. where it is an open secret that she is the studio’s choice to eventually succeed Peter Roth as the leader of all TV operations.
Warner Bros. and NBCUniversal declined comment. Rovner did not respond to requests for comment.
Roth, the Warner Bros. TV Group chairman who has led the studio since 1999, is said to be preparing to step down by the end of next year. During his tenure, the studio led the industry in TV production for many years, and Warner Bros. TV greatly expanded the scope of its production to include animation, children’s programming, unscripted series and international production assets. Roth is a venerable figure in the television industry who is well-known for his enthusiasm for the business and for nurturing of the massive network TV hits for the studio, from NBC’s “The West Wing” to CBS’ “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory.”
Rovner has been with Warner Bros. TV since 1998, starting out as director of drama development. She is highly regarded for her long tenure, her track record and deep relationships in the creative community. Those who have worked with Rovner say she is extremely loyal, which may make her inclined to wait it out in Burbank, should NBCU make her an offer.
Rover was first promoted to the level of co-president in 2014. Earlier this month, she was elevated to president of Warner Bros. Television in a restructuring that put the mothership WBTV studio together with the scripted side of Warner Horizon Television, which generally produces for streaming and cable outlets.
Rovner has worked in tandem for years with business affairs veteran Brett Paul, who is also president of Warner Bros. Television. It’s understood that the studio expects Rovner to go solo if she succeeds Roth.
Rovner’s experience is rooted on the studio side as a seller rather than as a network buyer, although she worked as executive director of made-for-TV movies at ABC before joining Warner Bros. NBCUniversal’s recent shakeup of its TV operations carved out a role for a top executive to oversee development and programming for NBC, Peacock, USA, Syfy, Bravo, E! and Oxygen. NBCUniversal shook up its TV operations earlier this month, ousting former NBC Entertainment chairman Paul Telegdy.
The TV restructuring NBCU unveiled on Aug. 6 carved up the responsibilities for running the business and content operations into two separate president-level posts. NBCU cable veteran Frances Berwick was tapped to lead the Entertainment Business unit. The opening for an Entertainment Programming chief is well-suited to Rovner’s background of focusing on creative development and management of a high volume of shows.
Rovner’s decision may well be influenced by the recent upheaval at WB parent WarnerMedia. The studio that was once a bastion of stability in Hollywood has been rocked by AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner in 2018. Over the past two years Warner Bros. has adjusted to new marching orders from John Stankey and other AT&T executives, as well as a new vision guiding the company’s macro operations in Hulu and Amazon alumnus Jason Kilar.
Kilar succeeded Stankey as CEO of WarnerMedia in May. On top of that, Warner Bros. saw CEO Kevin Tsujihara exit hastily in March 2019 after six years in the role amid a scandal about his affair with the scandal-magnet actor Charlotte Kirk. Former BBC Worldwide America executive Ann Sarnoff was named Warner Bros. CEO in June 2019.
Warner Bros. earlier this month initiated a round of layoffs that is expected to reach about 500 staffers. Among those departing were long-serving executives including TV distribution chief Jeffrey Schlesinger and home video topper Ron Sanders. The restructuring across WarnerMedia saw Sarnoff’s role grow considerably as she now has oversight of programming for HBO, HBO Max, TNT, TBS and TruTV. Sarnoff’s portfolio now drives the majority of WarnerMedia’s earnings.
Warner Bros.’ handling of the transition for Roth is a measure of the respect he has earned from the top of AT&T, and the importance of TV production as an engine for all of WarnerMedia. Like Roth, Rovner came up at the studio in an era when Warner Bros. executives could count on decades-long tenures, in success.
At a seismic moment in TV, Rovner may soon face the high-class problem of deciding between a coveted studio chief job, making her one of only a handful of women to reach that height in the industry — or parting with the studio she’s called home for 22 years to relocate to another media giant in the throes of transition.
(Pictured: Susan Rovner, Peter Roth)