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Making TV That Sings

Alix Hartley's office at the Creative Artists Agency (CAA) in Beverly Hills isn't your typical TV agent's lair. Instead of the requisite framed photos of Hartley with celebrity clients, posters of rock bands like Oasis adorn her walls. And if you're looking for scripts, you may find them buried under the CDs strewn across her desk. But then, Hartley isn't your typical TV agent.

While other agents spend their days looking to package the next crime procedural, Hartley has staked out a niche at the intersection of network television and music. A driving force behind the launch of American Idol, she has helped to reinvigorate the televised network music special. And with the broadcast networks desperately searching for the next variety show (preferably with Idol's phenomenal success), Hartley and her clients are in high demand.

A mailroom success story

Though Hartley liked music well enough while growing up in Henley-on-Thames, England (she was born in Berkeley, Calif.), she truly fell in love with it after sneaking away from boarding school at age 13 to see the Rolling Stones play in a downpour at Wembley Stadium.

In 1989, after graduating from Oxford, where she studied modern British and European history, Hartley struck out for California and landed a job in the CAA mailroom.

Within a year, she became an agent in the television non-fiction department, a backwater for first-run syndication and cable in the days before reality TV exploded. Still passionate about music, she began signing clients who worked in musical areas of TV, including veteran Grammy Awards producer Ken Erlich and future Idol director Bruce Gowers. One of her current clients is Joe Simpson, the father of pop stars Jessica and Ashlee.

Hartley made her mark with network music specials in 1999, when her client Erlich produced a series of CBS concert shows. The broadcasts—featuring Céline Dion, Ricky Martin and Shania Twain—helped to pull the genre off the mat.

While the networks really liked these big, marketable specials, they were increasingly loathe to pay as much as $1.5 million to license them. When license fees began to slip, Hartley helped to develop a business model that made the costly productions viable for the producers.

She brought in the advertising and marketing conglomerate Omnicom, a CAA client, which in turn gathered some of its clients, including American Express and Dodge, to finance a series of CBS specials featuring such artists as The Backstreet Boys, The Dixie Chicks and Jennifer Lopez. Omnicom would write the check to CBS and keep about 50% of the ad time.

“It was pretty groundbreaking at the time,” Hartley recalls proudly.

But she's proudest of her role in packaging and selling American Idol. With her love of music and her British upbringing, Hartley was the obvious choice when her CAA colleague Jeff Frasco matched her with Pop Idol creator Simon Fuller. Pitching the show with Fuller and the other Simons (talent judge Cowell and executive producer Jones), she was uncompromising on the format.

“One key for me was America voting,” she says. “That was one of the biggest problems we had at the networks.

“The other was having some English gentlemen saying those things about our kids,” she adds. “And today, of course, those are the two things that are really driving the show.”

As with so many hit shows, Idol saw its share of rejection. “We got a lot of doors slammed in our face,” she laughs.

Viva variety

Even after selling Idol and securing advertisers like Coca-Cola, Hartley says, she wondered if it would all pay off. She recalls a phone chat with Fox Executive VP for Programming and Specials Mike Darnell the night before the premiere: “We were just wondering, 'I don't know how this is going to go.'”

Now in its fifth year, Idol is stronger than ever. Shows like Dancing With the Stars are breaking out. And with every network scheduling at least one music competition show this summer, Hartley's stable of clients will have their pick.

“All the producers and directors we signed in the music specials or awards area are now finding that reality [TV] is moving right into their wheelhouse,” Hartley says.

Those clients include David Goffin, who will executive-produce a second season of CBS' Rock Star; TV Land Awards executive producer Michael Levitt, who will work on Cowell's Duets on Fox; and MTV Movie Awards veterans Joel Gallen and Michael Dempsey, who will go, respectively, to NBC's forthcoming adaptation of the Eurovision song contest and making-of-a-pop-star hit Operación Triunfo, coming to ABC.

And while other agents are chasing the success of Idol, Hartley is aiming to surpass it.

“Everyone wants a piece of Idol, but producers have to find a way to be different,” she says. “Fortunately for me, there is room for more than one music competition show.”