Mel's Diner: Bajaria’s Plan May Be Crazy Ambitious–But It’s Not ‘Nuts’

THE DISH: Bela Bajaria, executive VP of Universal TV, opts to meet for high-end bar food that’s great for sharing (especially the legendary bacon-andbrown- sugar brussels sprouts); we meet at Laurel Tavern in Studio City, Calif. It’s popular among the studios, but not packed at lunch like Kiwami, which Bajaria calls the “commissary.”

It’s the week before big-time meal time—Thanksgiving, which Bajaria says she’ll spend with family and certainly a stack of scripts. Her husband, screenwriter Doug Prochilo, whom she met years ago when they worked in nearby cubicles at CBS (she was an assistant, he was temping), does the cooking. But you could say “the office” is never far away. The couple’s courtship was a “total office romance,” she says. “[The Office executive producer] Greg Daniels always says, ‘Pam and Jim, Pam and Jim. You guys are Pam and Jim!’ I was even engaged to somebody else.”

It’s two years-plus since Bajaria came to NBCU from CBS to reboot the studio as a stand-alone unit, and she is on her way to reimagining Universal TV as a supplier to all distribution platforms—not just NBC, unlike the studio’s most recent previous incarnation, which was folded under the network. The studio, previously known as Universal Media Studios and before that NUTS (the merged NBC Studios and former Universal Television), now has scripted series projects in development at all of the Big Four and has set up three development projects with Tina Fey—two at NBC and a series commitment at Fox. Universal TV also produces Bates Motel for A&E and The Mindy Project for Fox, and several shows are on tap for midseason.

Of her debuts so far, there are “some promising, some not,” Bajaria says. On NBC this fall, Dracula veiwership has bled since the series’ decent debut; in its sophomore season, Chicago Fire has grown; while freshman Sean Saves the World failed to break out and Ironside was canceled.

At Fox, Bajaria expects freshman comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which has been picked up for a full season and is scheduled to air post-Super Bowl, to have a real shot. The Andy Samberg-led comedy’s live ratings were strong initially but fell off against tough competition. The show, however, gets a bump when counting delayed viewership. “This is definitely the year where you see networks looking at the ratings and saying, the live data is not the entire picture,” she says.

Over lunch, Bajaria revealed her biggest ambitions, the stickiest deal points today, development trends and more. Highlights of the interview follow.

What’s your overall vision for the studio and what are your greatest ambitions for it?

Initially, starting out as a three-to-five-year business, it’s just feeding the pipeline. Right now it’s a good start, but looking ahead we have to probably bring even more dramas in the pipeline, dramas that have great international value that could stand for multiple seasons. Also we actually need more multi-cams in that pipeline.

I’d like to see a show on each of the broadcast networks. I’d like to see a show on Netflix, Amazon, definitely another cable show outside of Bates Motel. It’s not volume necessarily, it’s not like you just need a certain amount and number of shows. But I think to have and build relationships with each network and supplying them a show is really important in the future.

What do you see ultimately as the balance between shows supplied to NBC and shows supplied to other outlets? Is it 50-50?

I still think that you will see the majority on NBC. It’s a sister network, so that will still happen. Is it more 60-40? Maybe.

What are you most excited about that you are developing now?

Drafts are just coming and it’s all full of hope and promise right now. But I am excited that we have a couple of really high concepts [and] really interesting characters in dramas. I’m excited that we have more multi-cams.

There are a couple of things that we’re writing internally on spec that we’re just going to take out later, whenever there is a right moment. I’m excited about those.…Not selling, not pitching, just writing it internally, saying we love that idea. Let’s just write it and we’ll have a script. And then we’ll go wide.… We don’t do it often. Normally we pitch and sell, then develop the traditional way.

There continues to be so much talk about that “traditional way” and changing the pilot season process. Where do you fall on that?

Pilot season is not the most efficient way for the business to run. It’s so concentrated in such a brief period. Everybody’s over-paying. It’s crazy. And every year we’re in the middle of it we go, ‘This is crazy!’ And then it’s just like, ‘OK, it is what it is and this is the cycle we’re on.’ It’s not ideal, because there’s no production or budget efficiency in doing it that way. And that’s frustrating and difficult on the studio side. But unfortunately, it is the giant wave of—that’s the cycle.

The benefit of it, I guess for studios, is there is a drop-dead date and you’re going to have answers.

What development trends are you seeing?

The trends are probably on the development side specifically, multi-cams in development this year. In general, collegeage shows, just more college than normal.…An unusual amount of CIA, FBI, thriller-type things. I think you are going to see more straight-toseries orders happening.

You’ve been in the business a while. It seems to me there were much simpler times, not even that long ago. Are deals more complicated now? What are the main sticking points?

I’ve been in the business I guess almost 20 years. What’s interesting to me is most of the changes seem like they have happened in the last two years. There is so much [change]: Delayed viewing, binge viewing; there are whole new distribution platforms. It really has rapidly changed in the last couple of years, more than even before that.

Deals are just more complicated because they are more nuanced. We’re also trying to make deals predicting what we think is going to happen, and it’s all moving so quickly.

Probably the at-the-moment issue as far as discussions is all about stackable, bankable rights. Does the network have the right to the entire season? And if you have all these extra platforms, do they get it? Does the network get it? Who gets it when?

We’re coming to the end of the year. What one thing would you like to learn or do better in the coming year?

Work-wise, next year I’d really like to create or produce a show that really becomes an asset in the entire company, something that all of the divisions in the company can really leverage. Ideally, in the dream world, does that end in a theme park ride? Absolutely. That would be something I’d like to do.

Will we continue to see more and more of the limited series?

More and more of that. It’s been so interesting for me to see—working on miniseries for as long as I did [at CBS] and to see them sort of come back in such a big way....It depends on the financing internationally, because four hours is still hard to finance unless you’re getting coproductions. But I love the form of miniseries, just creatively, so I think it’s really interesting to see that so recently coming back. 

Do you have a little bit of an edge in that regard, having spent so much time in that world, and now everyone is talking about doing this?

The interesting part of that is, I do, I think, just because I’ve made so many of them. But for a studio fresh two years into it, it’s really just not a priority. The priority and focus and manpower really have to be towards comedies and dramas. And doing a four-hour and doing a six-hour is just not a priority. The focus and manpower is the same to develop—so it’s interesting. I feel like it definitely works to have experience in that area, it’s just something right now, I can’t use any of that energy to do that. It’s really just not the focus right now of our studio. And it shouldn’t be. 

But should the time come, you’re ready.

Happy to do it. We have to find a title I haven’t done. But yes, happy to do it. 

How crucial is it to have long-term deals with big creative talent?

Overall deals are so important to the studio because you believe in a writer’s vision and voice, and of course there are hit and misses. But the idea of building a relationship and a shorthand with somebody and having that experience with them of, OK, that was a good show and maybe we tried it and it didn’t work but through that process we talked about X or Y you’ve always wanted to do, this other kind of show—just having that relationship with a writer, I mean it’s really, doing week in and week out of producing a TV show is a really intimate long-standing relationship. So having the history and the relationship with somebody long-term is really helpful. 

Tell me about who you hired, why and what kind of culture you're trying to create that’s different from the other studios out there.

With immigrant parents [from India], everybody in my family owns their own business. Everybody is a small-business owner. Every single one of them, literally, except for me. Aunts and uncles, the whole bunch. For me that entrepreneurial spirit, that sort of understanding of acting like an owner, or having that idea of building something is important. 

I said three things that were important to me were the entrepreneurial spirit, being great creatively, really supportive of writers and they had to be able to drink wine with me on Fridays...We hang out and take stock, it’s a good time to sort of bond together and have that time.

So as the holidays approach and people are thinking about what holiday gifts to send you, wine is not a bad idea?

Wine’s not a bad idea. 

What are your favorites? 

I love red wine. 

Congratulations on being elected president of the Hollywood Radio & Television Society in September. You already have your hands full with the studio job, a husband and three kids. Why did you go up for that? 

I’m on the board, and I think they felt like I was engaged and enthusiastic and it started with—I think having [Lionsgate’s] Kevin Beggs first called me, and I said, ‘Oh, Kevin. I can’t take that on.’ Then I think [WME’s] Sean Perry called me, those preceded by, like, ten other phone calls. 

So I said, ‘Oh, you're just going to keep calling me until I say yes.’ But they did something very clever. They knew my weak spot, which was, ‘It’s great for Universal Television, you’re rebranding the studio, you're getting the name out there, it’s just a great move within the business industry.’ And I said, ‘I can’t believe you went there.’ 

But it’s also that HRTS is interesting. You grow in the business as an executive and it’s one of those you want to be invited to, you go to, you listen to these fascinating panelists talk about the business. For so many people out there who have such knowledge and experience, it’s always a fascinating thing. It is sort of the organization for our industry and I really believe in it, and wanted to be a part of keeping it relevant and thriving. There has only been one other woman in 67 years who has been the president.

And until now, no person of color.

And no person of color. There were so many reasons that it made sense to take on with the job and three kids. 

You’ve seen or been part of a lot of pitches over the years. What are some tips you might suggest to those who are pitching shows? 

It really is so much about practice. If the studio, especially before we take a pitch to network we want to make sure it’s clear and concise and entertaining and actually tells a story. I think what’s hard is when people pitch and they tell you for a long time why you should buy this pitch and why it’s relevant versus—just, it should speak for itself. So, so much of it is the practice of it. It’s literally like anything: you're practicing. It’s a performance of sorts. I do think there is—can you tell your show in a very creative, entertaining way in 20 minutes?