When Executives Become Producers

You may have read the news that Chris Albrecht, the former mastermind of HBO (until he had to step down due to his arrest in 2007), has set up his first show as an independent producer: “The Borgias,” a Franco-American co-production to be created and written by Tom Fontana (Oz, Homicide). The concept itself is plausible enough as a way of piggybacking on the success of The Tudors — pretty soon there’ll be a show about every scandalous aristocratic family — but what interests me is the question of what happens when a TV executive goes into producing.

Different executives come from different kinds of backgrounds, and some of them actually started out as producers before going into the development/network side of things. But when they can no longer get work running a network, they usually announce that they’re going to develop their own projects, and it doesn’t always go well. Jamie Tarses, former NBC and ABC head, did manage to put together the reasonably successful My Boys for TBS. But Warren Littlefield, who was a well-respected development executive at NBC in its ’90s glory years (and who was affectionately parodied by Bob Balaban as “Russell Dalrymple” on Seinfeld, a show Littlefield oversaw), couldn’t come up with much more than the quirky cult flop Keen Eddie, and he did better than his mentor Brandon Tartikoff, whose post-NBC career as an independent producer was quite dismal.

It’s not exactly big news that the skills required to develop a show as a network executive are different from the ones needed to develop a show as a producer, even a non-writing producer; the jobs may both be essentially executive positions, but the objectives are different. The network executive mostly needs to have, or pretend to have, a sense of what the audience will want to see. The producer has to have a sense of what the network executives will want to buy. It often turns out that executives, after they leave the network, don’t necessarily understand what it is that makes a network executive want to buy a show. Can you blame them? No one really knows, not even the executives themselves.

I end this post with this only marginally-relevant clip of TV executive Jordan Levin, who, after being one of the people who helped found and run the WB, now produces what appear to be the equivalent of very expensive YouTube videos.

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