TV Summer School

Good morning tubers, and welcome to TV Summer School!

Wait, what? How did I get enrolled in summer school? This is so not fair!!

Chillax, kiddos, this is fun school, because it's all about TV. We're interviewing some of the powers behind the small screen to learn how the idiot box got so smart lately, discover what's really involved in making your favorite shows and explain how all this TV industry stuff works.

Okay, but there better not be any freaking homework!

No homework. We promise.

Our first lesson actually goes straight to the top. We tag-teamed newly installed Fox president Kevin Reilly at a recent event to find out exactly how one goes about running a network. He has a little experience, you see, having also run NBC until just recently. Read on for a look at his career and his thoughts on giving himself a pep talk, turning on "the hit machine" and working in a business of "nonsense and egos."


Kevin Reilly

Marianna Day Massey/ZUMA Press

What was your first job in town?
My first job was in 1985 cleaning wardrobe closets out of a commercial production company in New York. I started as a production assistant in New York doing commercials and music videos. I worked on 150 of them in two years; I never slept and made $13,000. It was a good job. 

What do you think is the job that made it possible for you to be here today? What was the turning point?
I was working for Brad Grey at Brillstein-Grey, and running a TV company there, and I met Peter [Liguori], who was trying to convince me to come to FX. He was really trying to get this going, and I thought he was a great guy, and he was really smart, but not a chance was I going to FX.

And then I started thinking about cable, and I know he was looking to hire somebody, and somebody said, "Don't judge FX too quickly, because they really want to get that thing on the map." Then Peter started telling me what he had on his mind, and Peter had come from HBO, and we both sort of came up with this idea of HBO for basic cable. So, I took a flyer. A lot of people thought, "Oh man, you've just killed your career. What is that network?" But then it all worked and came together, and it was good. We had a lot of fun, and it really worked, and we created a real asset for News Corp.

Specialized technical knowledgedo network presidents have any? And if so, what?
Zero. It's a very weird job, where there isn't any actual training for it. I've seen people with all different backgrounds do it. You have to be somewhat a student of television. You've got to appreciate it, and you probably know over the years what's worked, and what hasn't—just as a reference point. You really need to have creative instincts, but I've seen people come from various backgrounds. Usually you come up through the ranks of programming. You've been doing it, you form relationships, you've seen how it works. But ultimately, it's a really weird way to make a living.

Was it always your intention to get into television and on this side of the business? 
No, I just always wanted to be in the entertainment business my whole life. I was a television addict; I loved watching television, but you always hear people say, "I always wanted it; I had a little scheduling board in my room." I was never quite that fanatical, but I got my break in television, and then I realized I liked the energy of television. I mean, the movie business tends to work at a very glacial pace, and what fills all that is nonsense and ego. Although there is plenty of that in TV, it moves quickly. I mean, [if you work on] a movie that takes 10 years to [make] and at the end of 10 years you end up with a classic movie that wins an Oscar, great, but you know, if you're going 10 years to work on...

Daddy Day Camp...
Daddy Day Camp

And on a daily basis what kind of meetings are you taking? Whom are you talking to? What kind of work are you doing?
The good and the bad of the job is, at its core, you are the bridge between the artistry and the business. So, ultimately television is an advertising-delivery mechanism, and that is where we all make our living. Everybody in America hates commercials, but we're a consumer society, and even though we complain about advertising we also want to know what's new and what's on. And that's what fuels our economy, much more than we realize.

People say they don't watch commercials, yet somehow they get through. They let us differentiate between two different shampoos. How many shampoos are there in the world? A lot. How many differences are there in shampoo? None. So, that's what creates our world of choice. Okay, so that sales mechanism, that business imperative, that corporate imperative to hit targets and grow the business and create profit is one world.

But at the other end, you've got writers and actors and people who are just trying to be creative, and they got into it for a very different reason. They want to do good work. They are not interested in any of that, and you have to be able to nurture them along, and bring out the best in them, and then deal with all the business guys who truly do not understand the artistic thing at all. They think you can just order it up. They're like "turn up the hit machine," and everything after the fact always seems really obvious. You can look at a show and say that's ridiculous...well, yeah, after the fact it's very easy.

In the heat of the moment, you have to go with your instincts, and most things don't work. It takes a lot of alignment from the stars for it to actually come together and be good. You're taking a bet on things, so when it comes together it's pretty magical, but a lot of times there is just one piece off—and all you need is to be off by five degrees for the ship to go in a totally wrong direction.  

And hit an iceberg and kill everyone.
Exactly. So, of course, it's very easy for everyone to yell at us, and go, "What were you thinking?" Most people just second-guess.  

What advice would you give somebody who wanted to be you in 20 years? And/or what advice would you give to someone who wanted a show on your network next season?
Never lose your enthusiasm. The business does grind you down, and it's very relentless, and you have to maintain your enthusiasm for things that are special and exciting. Somebody said to me years ago, "always do something that is out of your comfort zone every day." You have to be willing to get out of your comfort zone.

And how to get on Fox next year? Bring us a good show.  

Have the recent happenings in your life soured you? Did you lose your enthusiasm at all? Did you have to have that "you still love the business" talk with yourself?
It does sometimes, and you go through cycles. You go through cycles where you get discouraged, and you feel like you can't catch a break, and nothing is going to work. Ultimately, all you have is your instincts and your ability to bet on things, and if you get freaked out over that you're probably going to have nothing. So, when stuff happens you get pretty ground down, but I've learned this: You can't script life. I've had things happen that I would have never anticipated. If you're true to who you are, and you believe in yourself, in this country at least, you have the opportunity for things to work out.

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