Mel's Diner: Wachtel ‘Digs’ New Gig

THE DISH: When you sit down to lunch and the person at the table next to you is superagent/WME co-CEO Ari Emanuel—who promptly and loudly calls you “a lying sack of s---”—you know you’ve achieved a special level in Hollywood.

So if anyone didn’t already know it, when Jeff Wachtel arrived at Toscana in Brentwood, Emanuel let the whole restaurant know Wachtel had, well, arrived. I could quite possibly elbow Emanuel from my seat because Toscana is “tight, noisy,” which reminds the L.A.-based New Yorker Wachtel of home.

After Emanuel’s badge-of-honor greeting, Wachtel mused about how people talk when they like each other (read: “you lying sack…”) vs. when they’re about to start a fight. Ironically, the latter is when people say, “hey buddy” or “my friend,” Wachtel said, laughing, and, in a way, explaining that he’s not actually known by one of the most powerful agents as a “lying dot dot dot.”

In September, Wachtel’s longtime boss Bonnie Hammer, after she was given oversight of all of NBCUniversal’s cable entertainment businesses, named Wachtel to the newly created post of president and chief content officer, NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. Among his duties, he now has oversight of production units Universal Cable Productions (for scripted) and Wilshire Studios (formerly E! Studios, for unscripted).

Wachtel, who most recently served as copresident of USA Network, quickly made some big executive hires. He also announced UCP’s six-episode commitment to ambitious FBI adventure drama Dig for USA Network. Cocreated and cowritten by Tim Kring (Heroes) and Gideon Raff (Homeland), the show is set in Jerusalem—a deal that had been brokered through the agency run by that softspoken fella sitting at the next table.

In his first interview since taking on the new role, Wachtel spoke about his vision for his next chapter, how Hammer will measure his success and the culture of innovation at the company. Edited highlights of the interview follow.

It sounds like your new job is unlike any that we’ve seen before in the TV landscape. Would you agree?

It’s a little bit different. There are two parts of the job. One is that I run two studios, which are the scripted and non-scripted studios, UCP and Wilshire. The other part of the job is a little bit less quantifiable, but a lot of fun. It’s more of a partnership. It’s more helping each network be the best version of itself.

[When Hammer was given oversight of all the cable entertainment properties at NBCU] that caused a kind of a reevaluation of what’s the best way to manage such a big portfolio. Right around then we had what we called a Big Think offsite... The major learning was: As powerful as linear networks are and have been, they’re arguably not the growth engine of the future. They will be incredibly important for the foreseeable future. But with so many platforms available, let’s be smart and maybe have some version of a focus on creating and managing the long-term value of the shows, of the content. Does it make sense, given this big portfolio of networks, to have one person who can bring a kind of a cross-portfolio perspective to things? That was her idea.

And so, I was lucky to be here and to have had some success at USA. We kind of simplified the management at USA, so now Chris McCumber is president of USA, and I got this great gig where I’m able to play in a number of playgrounds.

Were you nervous at all about taking on this job?

I’m nervous about almost everything and this was no exception. I had been at USA for 11 years and it was a truly spectacular career chapter I was lucky to have.

So yes, change is exciting, but a little scary. The early memos, emails that we exchanged were headed ‘foreseeing the future.’ So there was something in what Bonnie wanted to do, in kind of grabbing the reins of this content thing that both felt, ‘this is where we’re all going’ and just a little bit of, ‘not a lot of people have gone here before. So how is it going to work?’

Let’s talk about when you and Bonnie discussed you moving into this position—what was the conversation? Was it, ‘would you like this job’ or ‘here’s your new job?’

She’s a really good leader, so it’s a process. It was probably a little bit of both. One of her great qualities is getting the absolute best out of the people that work for her. She’s not really somebody who jams you into a job, because that’s not going to work. So she’s pretty thoughtful about that process.

She came to me with a combination of, ‘I think this is going to be the best thing’ and ‘I think it’s going to be the best thing for you. And you’ve had this great run at USA, and won’t it be exciting for you to expand your horizons? And look at where our business is going and the greater emphasis placed, the greater value placed on content creation and managing stuff, not only what was last night’s rating, but what shows are going to make it and be part of our library?’ And that was a big part of the USA story. It wasn’t just launching stuff. It was, almost every one of our shows, knock wood, that we launched are currently going the distance. And taking some of that experience and bringing it to the rest of the portfolio.

And you said—

I said, ‘Wow. Let me think about it. I kind of like this USA gig. Hold on just a minute.’ Because it was definitely pushing out of the comfort zone a little bit. Is there a job like this out there? Because that was scary. Is anybody else doing this? And that started to become the exciting part.

Also I’ll say that with the new ownership, with Comcast, Brian [Roberts] and Steve [Burke] are very committed to the new. To pushing out. To ‘bring us the great opportunity, show us why, and we’re in.’ Like, maybe we should buy NBCU, as an example. So they’re looking to Bonnie and her team not to sit tight, but to advance with and be the leaders in creating new stuff.

How do you expect your success in this role to be measured?

There is a two-part answer because there is the studios part and then there is the CCO part. The clearer metric is the studios. There’s a scripted and non-scripted studio. Both of these studios have had success as mostly service studios.…The simple measurable success at the scripted or non-scripted studio is really turning both of those into smart, wellrun, flexible, profit-making studios.

Serving both the group and external buyers?

And outside, with a cable focus. On the CCO side, it’s by definition less measurable….By its nature, any success that the CCO has should be reflective. It’s really each network’s job to succeed. And so you can’t quantify—if three, four, five years from now networks are closer to the best version of what they wanted to be, then that will be a job well done.

How did Dig come together?

When we looked at, ‘OK, what do we want the early days of the job to look like?’ [one] thing for us was creating an early win. A big win. A big noticeable win. So we were in the market looking to show we’re going to play. And especially if we find something that might have cross-portfolio value, where it will play big.

And so Bonnie and I went out to every agency and opened up that door. And a few things came in, but one of the first ones was Dig, which we thought definitely hit the sweet spot for one network. It didn’t come in through USA, it came in through [being] CCO. And also because it has some potentially supernatural elements to it so maybe something that Syfy might take a run of..…We looked at it through the filter of, not does Syfy want to buy this or does USA want to buy this, but what could this do for maybe more than one place?

Is that still to be determined? You could run it on a number of networks?

It’s starting to feel honestly a little bit more like a big USA event. The more that I know about the creative, the more it feels like that. But yes, it’s certainly possible. And it was important to announce to the community that that was how we were looking at things. People can walk through the individual network door—and there’s also another door to walk through, especially if people are maybe not sure which network it might be best served at, and if it might be more than one network …and saying we’re in the market for super high-end auspices, big, expensive challenging projects and something that we think might work for more than one place.

Do you get worried that the network execs might feel competitive with one another about projects that come in through UCP?

In-house? Yeah, but they are competitive….There ought to be a sense of, ‘I want that one.’ There’s nothing wrong with that.

As a former network president, you know all too well that a president understandably might tend to think that they know what’s best for the brand they shepherd. What’s the dynamic like working with the network presidents—in a situation where they don’t report to you but you’re being asked, as you say, to help their network “be the best version of itself?”

So, before I got the network job, I was a seller. I was a producer. I ran the primetime division of a studio [Columbia Pictures Television]. And in those jobs, you don’t win the argument because you have the power, you win the argument because you have the best idea. Something that we cultivated at USA was a sense of executives as producers.… That your job is to have the best idea, not to simply enforce your vision. I think that’s a good skill set to have.

Certainly at USA, early days, we had to convince people to come in the door. People were not seeking us out. So we developed a more flexible and partnership-oriented approach. We weren’t too proud to look at other people’s rejects for some of our early shows. Some of our greatest successes came out of other people’s scrap piles, like Monk [which was developed at ABC]. Dead Zone was a pilot that was rejected by UPN; 4400 was developed at Fox. And that openness of approach—you never know where the best idea is going to come from—that’s something that any network can benefit from.

Also, I'm lucky in that [USA Network president] Chris [McCumber] and I have worked together for ten years. [Syfy’s] Dave [Howe] and I have known each other as friends for ten years. I think [Bravo and Oxygen Media’s] Frances [Berwick] is one of the smartest executives in the business. [E!’s] Suzanne [Kolb] I got to know after Bonnie took over E! and is incredibly savvy about her brand and an incredible manager. [Esquire’s] Adam Stotsky’s been a friend. Bonnie didn’t go outside the portfolio and bring in some kind of McKinsey-style consultant to say here’s what you should do. It was a little more organic. Hopefully there is a little more credibility, and also trust and respect.

Looking at your 11 years at USA, what’s one thing you're most proud of?

I am going to give you three wonderful times in my career. Three different chapters. First, the first significant time after school, I was a theater producer and director. I was working at a great off-off-Broadway theater called Saint Clement’s. A fascinating playwright came by with a really different and unique voice. We produced a bunch of his plays in our nonprofit theater. I had always expected to be working in nonprofit theater, but I wanted to make money with a show—so we raised some money and produced a play called Sexual Perversity in Chicago, which was David Mamet’s first commercial New York production. The New York Times review said, ‘the production is flawless.’ I went, wow. So that was a lot of fun. So that was chapter one.

I came out here, I was an executive. At Columbia. And was given the drama department to run. Early-, mid-‘90s. At that time, comedy was the big thing we were producing. Married With Children, we were distributing Seinfeld. Drama was basically dead. The syndication window had completely fallen apart. International networks were thinking, we’ll produce our own stuff. It was a really challenged place to be. And we created a really interesting model, which was, let’s do shows that we can basically make for almost the network license fee. And we did a show called Party of Five.

We were almost a year in and we get a nomination for a Golden Globe. Other nominations that year were, I think, ER, Homicide, Chicago Hope and I forgot what else. A Law and Order or something. It was so above where we were. And sitting at that table at the Golden Globes, as you know, at least at the Golden Globes the TV people are not in the front row. I broke open a bottle of champagne, toasted the cast and Bob Greenblatt, who was No. 2 at Fox and our champion of the show, said, ‘We already won. Look where we’re sitting, guys!’ And we just kind of laid back and relaxed, and then we won. In one of those crazy Golden Globe-y, oh-look-at-you moments. The show actually was the best.

When they were showing the trailers for each show, for whatever reason, coincidence, each show had picked a very similar—actually a through the doors at the hospital, ‘Give me 30 milligrams of MP stat!’ scene. And the Homicide one was like, ‘SWAT team move immediately!’ And the Party of Five scene that we picked was Scott Wolf and Neve Campbell on the swings talking about mom and dad at the end of the pilot. And I so remember getting what my sister calls the quivvies, which is this feeling that you get at the back, it basically starts to crawl up your back. I said, ‘We could win! We’re not like anybody else right now!’ And then they said Party of Five. Amy Lippman and I looked at each other with our jaws literally dropped in this frozen moment. ‘Get up there, get up there!’ And that was absolutely just this beautiful validation of an unexpected—a different way of doing something. That was No. 2.

No. 3 was at USA and it was the experience of Monk, but the moment of the finale. After working on that show for seven years, it was the first time that we all were able—or I’d experienced being able to look at everybody, creative, business, and say, this is a show that’s reaching its end. How could we do that? How could we intelligently conceive of an ending that will satisfy our audience? That will leave us feeling good, that will not do what people are always afraid of—if you close off a series, it’s not worth much in syndication. How do you do that and still maintain ongoing interest in the show for people who hadn’t discovered it?

And [cocreator and executive producer] Andy Breckman came up with two-part finale that was as well-written, and Tony [Shalhoub] was as great an actor—it was really beautiful work. It closed off every story line in a sweet and sophisticated way. The last line of dialogue of Monk was a callback to the first line of the pilot and it was so complete. Randy Newman wrote another song for us. It was a sense of beautiful closure and accomplishment. And then it did very well. Until Walking Dead came along, the finale of Monk was the highest-rated scripted hour in cable history. So not only did we feel great about it but the audience started to come back to experience it. I do believe that when networks are thinking about their long-term relationships with audiences, that was a great example. We love your work, we respect you. And we’re kind of all in this story together. And that was just a beautiful example.