RSW ’14: Network execs, producers discuss hopping the fence

At a Realscreen West panel entitled "The Grass Is Always Greener," the roles of producers and network execs were debated by those who had experience on both sides of the pitching table. (Pictured L-R: Esquire exec Matt Hanna, Ish Entertainment CEO Michael Hirschorn)
June 6, 2014

(Photo: Rahoul Ghose)

In a Realscreen West panel entitled “The Grass Is Always Greener,” the changing roles of producers and network execs were debated among those who had experience on both sides of the pitching table.

Tim Duffy, co-founder of Ugly Brother Studios, moderated the panel, which featured Alan Eyres, SVP of programming and development for National Geographic Channel; Abby Greensfelder, owner of Half Yard Productions; Matt Hanna (pictured, left), head of programming at Esquire Network; Michael Hirschorn (pictured, right), CEO of Ish Entertainment; Joe LaBracio, EVP of alternative programming for Condé Nast Entertainment; and Jennifer O’Connell, head of U.S. television for Core Media Group.

Panelists agreed that the roles of producer and network executive are markedly different, but these occasionally wrought relationships could be strengthened through changes within the landscape.

LaBracio pointed out that content from production companies might be of higher value if U.S. networks allowed them to own IP and, thus, their own series. The exec referenced British format The Great British Bake-Off from Love Productions, which has now sold into numerous territories.

“Here in the U.S., you’re selling, and you own nothing for the most part,” he told the audience. “If producers knew they were going to own something, maybe they’d shape the content a little better.”

Greensfelder, who left her post as SVP of programming and development at Discovery Channel to start Half Yard Productions, explained her views on each role.

“Being a producer is something where you’re only as good as your hits, and the executive’s job is to find the hits,” she said, offering an analogy. “Being a network executive is very even-keeled and as a producer, you’re bipolar.”

Greensfelder also noted that while producers used to interact with just one or two executives in a meeting, they are now faced with large groups in greenlight meetings where a series is thoroughly analyzed before moving forward.

The prodco head said she’s been able to make the group’s most successful shows largely by flying under the radar.

“What I prefer is to sell a show that nobody knows exists, where it’s not expected to do big things, and not everyone is setting up meetings to nit-pick it to death,” she said, referencing Half Yard Productions’ Diggers series for National Geographic Channel. “It’ll take a couple of those for a creative renaissance.”

Meanwhile, Esquire Network’s Hanna added that another understanding networks and production companies should have is to not underestimate the audience. The exec recalled an incident from his producing days when a net asked to refer to the architects on a show as engineers for fear that audiences would find “architect” too complex a job title.

“Let’s assume the audience is actually smart,” said Hanna. “People in this country are not [stupid]. They know what an architect is.”

Ultimately, most panelists said changes were needed in the unscripted arena to alleviate the pressures on both network executives and prodcos. If not, Eyres warned what could be ahead for the industry.

“We’re going to hang on to the current model for dear life and then one day it will be gone,” he said.

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