Spike Boss Has a Sharp Eye for Hits
Kay made his bones writing cue cards for Carson
By Anne Becker -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/19/2006 7:00:00 PM
Kevin Kay has found himself behind the scenes in television since he was a kid. The Spike TV bigwig got his start working for a teleprompter service owned by his grandfather, a former producer for CBS and NBC. The New Jersey native spent summers getting an up-close look at some of the biggest shows around, typing up scripts for Jeopardy! and writing cue cards for The Tonight Show, then based in New York.
“You got to see how the talent relies on the people around them: the production staff, the guy that puts on the microphone,” he recalls. “They want to be comfortable so they can focus on the creative part of their job.”
While at Boston University, Kay arranged his schedule so he would have Fridays off to travel back to New York, where he continued working the teleprompter for such shows as Saturday Night Live. Kay calls the five seasons he spent with SNL a career highlight: He worked with original cast members John Belushi and Chevy Chase and witnessed live TV writing, directing and producing by the likes of Lorne Michaels, whom he calls a mentor. “He's as good as anybody gets at putting a show like that together and being a great businessman,” Kay says.
Kay eventually transferred to Wagner College in New York when the commute from Boston got to be too much. By then a part owner in the teleprompter company, he toiled at several shows, including Late Night With David Letterman, where he got to know Chris Elliott, a performer and writer.
When Kay was interested in getting into producing after college, the two teamed up for some Cinemax specials, including FDR: A One Man Show. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he says. “[But] I had the instincts, and I knew how to find great writers and producers and build a team.”
Elliott earned himself a Fox series in Los Angeles, and Kay stayed in New York, producing and writing for local programs, including New York at Night, a WOR variety show, where he picked up two local Emmys and learned how to program to an older audience (“our audience was 65-plus,” he says).
After the show was cancelled, Kay moved to a development deal at production company HBO Downtown, where he was part of a tiny writing team for Night After Night, starring standup comic Allan Havey. But when a friend from New York at Night told him Nickelodeon needed someone to finesse production for Weinerville, starring puppet comedian and SNL vet Marc Weiner, Kay leapt at the opportunity to join a network.
He became the executive in charge of production—a title he was somewhat reluctant to accept based on what he knew from his days as a writer: “All I knew was the executive in charge of production was the guy that came in the room and gave us notes and then he left and we laughed at him for a while.”
Kay's writer background helped him get along with the team. Weinerville became a hit, and he stuck around the network, more than happy to immerse himself in children's programming. “I came from late-night television, and in this business it's easy to get pigeonholed,” he says. “What was great about Nickelodeon was, anyone would let you do anything you wanted to do if it was a good idea.”
He stayed at the network for 10 years, eventually becoming executive VP, production and original series development, for Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite and TV Land. Along with ex-Nick programming vets Herb Scannell and Albie Hecht, he helped program seminal shows like The Adventures of Pete & Pete, the offbeat single-camera comedy about red-headed brothers named Pete; Kenan & Kel; and All That.
When Nick parent Viacom bought CBS, Kay and Hecht were asked to split their time between Nick and CBS subsidiary The Nashville Network, where they struggled to find new branding for the flagging channel. Kay was part of the crew that decided to scrap TNN and, after several incarnations (not to mention a lawsuit from Spike Lee), successfully relaunched it as male-targeting Spike TV in 2003. Kay became Spike's executive VP, programming and production.
Nearly three years later, Kay is the network's general manager/executive VP, and he feels right at home running programming, marketing, research and multi-platform ventures for the network. A “freakish New York Yankees fan” who loves classic rock and hip-hop and doesn't miss an episode of 24, Kay reports to Spike President Doug Herzog, who also manages Comedy Central and TV Land.
Herzog calls Kay “a key figure in establishing the Spike TV brand,” noting that his “broad range of skills, creative instincts and effective leadership capabilities have played an important part in the continued success of the network.”
Spike has built a following for acquired shows such as CSI and The Shield and turned original reality shows Ultimate Fighting Championship and Pros vs. Joes into hits. Now Kay's sights are set on churning out a new reality series each quarter and pumping big bucks into a miniseries and two high-quality hour-long dramas a year (first up is Blade, based on the vampire comic from Marvel).
He's also drawing on his late-night background to craft a Thursday-Saturday late-night block to debut in the fourth quarter, which will likely include videogame-themed shows. And he has a message for the creative community whose work is turned down by the broadcast networks for being considered “too guy.”
“If you've got an action drama, bring it to us,” Kay says. “Action's at the heart of what we do.”
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