Year in review: Executive shuffles aplenty as content biz pivots to streaming

Call it 2020 vision. As we do when a year comes to a close, Realscreen is offering a look back at the major stories impacting the unscripted and non-fiction content industry ...
December 22, 2020

Call it 2020 vision.

As we do when a year comes to a close, Realscreen is offering a look back at the major stories impacting the unscripted and non-fiction content industry over the course of the past 12 months. This year, of course, offered more than its share of unprecedented challenges. Still, as you’ll see in these recaps, the industry met them with innovation and dedication, and continues to do so as 2021 approaches. For our final look back at 2020, we examine the executive shuffles throughout the non-fiction screen content business as linear companies shift their focus to streaming.

The enduring novel coronavirus pandemic has placed heavy strain on companies across the media landscape this year, causing several to trim their ranks and instead recalibrate their efforts for the streaming era.

In August, NBCUniversal made significant cuts to its staff across its entire portfolio of brands as part of an organizational restructuring to its streaming operations. The layoffs impacted less than 10% of the company’s 35,000 employees and led to the departure of NBC Entertainment chairman Paul Telegdy following an investigation into allegations that the exec fostered a “toxic” work environment.

At the same time, NBCU aligned its television networks component under Mark Lazarus, who now leads the Television and Streaming division, and promoted Matt Straus to oversee its direct-to-consumer unit while maintaining oversight of its Peacock SVOD service. Lifestyle Networks president Frances Berwick, meanwhile, took charge of the company’s Entertainment Business unit.

Fall brought further realignment to the mass media and entertainment conglomerate, with Pearlena Igbokwe elevated to chairman of Universal Studio Group and the streamlining of its in-house production and development arm – Universal Television Alternative Studio – moving under the Universal Studio Group (USG) banner.

October brought more headline departures to NBCU.

Meredith Ahr, president of NBCUniversal’s alternative and reality programming group, left the organization following that summer’s investigation into the company’s work environment found the behavior displayed by Ahr and Telegdy did not meet company standards. A day later, long-time NBCU exec and NBCUniversal International Studios president Jeff Wachtel exited the company following internal complaints about his management style and discussions about respect in the workplace.

However, there were other significant new arrivals amidst the exits. Rounding out the network’s executive team is Susan Rovner, a former Warner Bros. Television executive who joined NBCU as chairman of entertainment content with oversight of creative strategy for original entertainment across the mediaco’s television and streaming division.

Over at WarnerMedia, amalgamation was also on the menu.

In August, Warner Bros. Television Group consolidated its scripted and unscripted operations, with physical production, business affairs and finance for unscripted programming combined to service Warner Horizon Unscripted Television, Telepictures and Shed Media. Mike Darnell was chosen to run all three labels, reporting to Peter Roth, in a move that saw the exit of Telepictures EVP and GM Donna Redier Linsk from the company.

In October, Channing Dungey exited Netflix as its VP of original content after two years in the role, resurfacing days later to replace Peter Roth as chairman of the Warner Bros. TV Group. “Channing is one of the most talented, visionary, creative and respected executives working in television today,” said WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group chair and CEO Ann Sarnoff at the time.

But Dungey’s arrival was preceded by big name exits months earlier. Both Bob Greenblatt, chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment and direct-to-consumer, and Kevin Reilly, HBO Max chief content officer, said their goodbyes to colleagues at WarnerMedia in August.

In terms of promotions in the game of exec musical chairs at WarnerMedia, former Hulu chief Jason Kilar was named CEO of WarnerMedia in April, overseeing Warner Bros., HBO, Turner, Otter Media and HBO Max.

At Disney and its myriad content divisions, changes brought about the departure of National Geographic global unscripted EVP Geoff Daniels, with his team now reporting to Courteney Monroe, named president of content for the network in an earlier exec shuffling involving Disney’s General Entertainment division.

The streaming space wasn’t immune to the executive shuffling of 2020. Netflix bolstered its ranks with the addition of former Disney+ unscripted exec Dan Silver in December as director of documentary feature films, a move that came months after Netflix veteran Cindy Holland – instrumental in the company’s move to original content – left the company as Bela Bajaria was upped to vice president of global television.

Bajaria would shortly thereafter alter her management team in an attempt to simplify the structure in the U.S. to comedy, drama and unscripted teams with a new team dedicated to overall deals. The role for head of U.S. series remains unfilled, and until it does, Brian Wright (head of overall deals, original series) and Brandon Riegg (head of non-fiction series and comedy specials) will report into Bajaria.

Back in the world of “traditional” media megacorps, ViacomCBS made moves to recalibrate its ranks following the merger of the two companies in late 2019. In October Pluto TV CEO Tom Ryan stepped into the role of president and CEO of ViacomCBS Streaming as a result of Marc Debevoise leaving the company as ViacomCBS chief digital officer and president and CEO of ViacomCBS Digital.

Ryan now has global oversight of ViacomCBS’s streaming strategy, overseeing the rebranded Paramount+ and Pluto TV.

At ViacomCBS Networks International, Pierluigi Gazzolo departed from as president of streaming and studios, with Kelly Day taking oversight of Gazzolo’s streaming duties.

The changes at ViacomCBS continued as the year drew to a close, with Smithsonian Channel bringing on veteran news exec James F. Blue III as SVP and head of the channel, while saying goodbye to EVP of programming and production David Royle, who had been with the network since its inception in 2006.

(With files by Barry Walsh)

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.