Cable Vet Pivots to Start-Up
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It is an unusual sight: Evan Shapiro is taking a break. On a torpid afternoon before the July 4th holiday, the president of the Pivot network has cracked open a Corona with the other dozenplus staffers in the company's airy Flatiron District headquarters. The cold ones are a preholiday gesture to the troops, who are in a race to Aug. 1, which is when the Participant Mediaowned network, built on assets from the former Documentary Channel and Halogen, hits the air in some 40 million households.
The 10-month launch buildup would be a sprint for any team, but it's even more so for Pivot given its unique ambitions. For Shapiro, 46, this is not just another hat thrown into the cable ring. It is an historic attempt to both prove TV's ability to change the world and reinvigorate the industry through a multiplatform bond with millennials. Pivot's eclectic programming lineup includes late-night talk show TakePart Live, docu-talk series Raising McCain (hosted by Meghan McCain, blogger and daughter of Sen. John McCain) and Canadian comedy Little Mosque on the Prairie. The channel’s key strategic thrust involves a streaming app to allow its content to be viewed on mobile devices by subscribers – a TV Everywhere play enhanced by a novel broadband-only subscription offering. Bold wagers aren't foreign to Shapiro. He began his career betting that large audiences could be lured to Shakespeare (his slogan for the Public Theater's gratis productions in Central Park: "Free Will") and that IFC and Sundance Channel were far more than film brands. At the end of an eightyear run at Rainbow/AMC, an offer from Participant struck a chord. The company, founded by exeBay chief Jeffrey Skoll, finances films with social dimension such as Lincoln and The Help.
"The reason I did what I did, which was leave a really f---ing great job at a really great brand that I spent a lot of energy helping to build, was because I thought that the entire industry was complacent," Shapiro says. "Thirty-five years ago, we were the disruptive technology. And we've ceded that. It's time for us to recapture it....I came here to regain that optimism and that entrepreneurial spirit."
Remote's Control Over Him
The one constant of Shapiro's winding path to the corner office has been TV itself. "I grew up addicted to television," he says matter-of-factly of his upbringing in Cherry Hill, N.J., just outside of Philadelphia. (Philly region patois explains why he pronounces his surname Sha-PIE-ro.) "Most of the seminal events of my life happened in front of the TV-the Phillies winning the World Series in 1980, Bill Clinton winning the election."
The two-night 1982 PBS broadcast of the stage play The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby "changed my life," Shapiro says. While he coveted a job in TV, theatre was a realistic start. At U. Mass Amherst, he continued his focus on theatre but left for New York before earning a degree.
After knocking around the downtown theatre world, Shapiro connected with legendary director George C. Wolfe, who hired him as head of marketing for the New York Shakespeare Festival. Hit campaigns for the Patrick Stewart-led production of The Tempest and Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk followed. (The only two posters on the walls of Shapiro's modest office are from those 1990s theatre days.) Shapiro then formed his own branding firm, with a scope wider than the stage.
The leap to television came a week before 9/11, when former client Court TV hired Shapiro to run marketing. Court's shift from its namesake legal news focus to the more potent mix of forensics and mystery prompted Ed Carroll, now COO at AMC Networks, to give Shapiro the reins at IFC. Ratings and revenue surged as the seeds for Portlandia and other series were sown, and Shapiro also guided Sundance toward originals and away from its well-worn library of indie films.
A Next Chapter
Rebranding was a rush. But after long years of double-duty and facing a logjam in AMC's top management ranks, Shapiro felt open to a new chapter. Jim Berk, CEO of Participant, spoke to a number of top-tier players in his search for the company's TV head. But Shapiro stood out for his unusual mix of qualities, many of which stem from the theatre.
In addition to a "productive scrappiness," Shapiro also adds marketplace acumen, passion, persistence, and a sense of humility, Berk says. "He gets away with occasionally being a pain in the ass, and by that I mean relentless, because he has such a strong belief in what he's saying. He brings a sense of positive disruption, which enhances an organization instead of destroying it so it can be rebuilt. That's really rare."
Politically active and a board member of Ghetto Film School and Women in Cable Television, Shapiro got energized by Participant's aim to make compelling TV and also galvanize social action. He signed on as Participant's first TV employee, a roster that he has steadily upped to 80.
"I am a big agent of change," Shapiro says. "The idea of building a clock rather than just telling time-that's what I am interested in."
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