Jeff Gaspin: The Nice Guy Who Finished First
NBC's entertainment chief leads the network through challenging times with a steady hand
By Marisa Guthrie -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/25/2010 12:00:00 AMNATPE 2010: Complete Coverage from B&C
The read on Jeff Gaspin, who last summer became chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, is that in a business rife with sharks, he's actually nice.
"Unlike a lot of people in broadcasting, he has an innate kindness that I think helps him a lot," says Michael Gartner, former president of NBC News, who was Gaspin's boss in the early 1990s when Gaspin was a programming and development executive at the news division. "He's thoughtful and he's kind."
Those steadying qualities have been much in demand of late, as NBC Universal executives continue to navigate an aborted strategy to rewrite the economic rules of broadcast television with The Jay Leno Show. Gaspin's equanimity in the midst of tumult has stood him in good stead, earning him muchneeded goodwill from beleaguered NBCU staffers as well as executives who report to him.
"He's a secure guy," says Bonnie Hammer, president of NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and Cable Studios. "Unfortunately, I think there are a lot of people who aren't quite as secure. And I think oftentimes, insecurity drives the craziness. He lets his people run their business. He's there for support. He's there to make sure you're accountable and doing your job, but he's not a control freak."
It's a character trait Gaspin shares with Brandon Tartikoff, the late NBC programming visionary who was one of Gaspin's first mentors in the TV business. After earning an M.B.A. from New York University in 1984, Gaspin-who grew up in the workingclass New York City borough of Queens-landed a job in finance at NBC News. He was among a cadre of people there who Gartner refers to as "the doers."
"He was always the smart guy. He had ideas. And he watched television," Gartner says. "An amazing number of people whom work in television don't watch television."
It wasn't long before Gaspin's smarts and affinity for TV earned him a promotion: In 1989, he was named VP of programming and development for NBC News. But he was self-aware enough to know that he didn't "know anything about programming." So he consulted Gartner, who consulted NBC's sports and Olympics guru Dick Ebersol, who called Tartikoff.
"Brandon said, â€˜Why don't you send him out here for six months?'" Gaspin recalls. "Let him join the development team. That will be the best way for him to learn what program development is all about."
For six months, Gaspin holed up in a furnished corporate apartment near NBC's Burbank offices, and spent his days tailing Tartikoff and a team that at the time included John Miller, Jamie Tarses, Preston Beckman and Kevin Reilly. It was an immersion course in development with the master of the genre. "From where I sat, Brandon was as close to God as I could get," Gaspin says.
Asked if he was intimidated, Gaspin says: "I was more excited than intimidated. I probably was too young and stupid to be intimidated."
After nine years at NBC, Gaspin left for music network VH1, assuming the post of executive VP of programming in 1996. There, his newly honed producer's gut was put to the test. And Gaspin answered with what would become a cultural phenomenon: VH1's Behind the Music. He followed that with Pop-Up Video and Storytellers. No one will mistake Gaspin's VH1 catalogue for high art (pop art, definitely). But like his mentor, Gaspin has an appreciation for the genre.
Tartikoff, according to Gaspin, "was so passionate about television. He loved good television and bad television. He thought there was something valuable in all of it."
Despite the exigencies of his work life, Gaspin- who has three children: Max, 18, Samantha, 15, and Ben, 12-still manages to log numerous hours in front of the TV. He watches NBC's Thursday-night lineup, of course. His guilty pleasure is Bravo's Real Housewives, especially the OC ladies. And he's been a faithful Saturday Night Live viewer for decades. But he also confesses to being hooked on Fox's 24, HBO's vampire drama True Blood and ABC's Lost-although the show's labyrinthine plot presents challenges. "My son [Max] has to explain every episode to me," he says.
Many Happy Returns
Gaspin returned to NBC in 2001 as executive VP of alternative series, and helped developed successful franchises including Deal or No Deal, The Apprentice and The Biggest Loser. In 2002, he was named president of Bravo, where he had a hand in forging the network's identity with defining programs including Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Project Runway.
He then served as president of NBC Universal Cable and Digital Content, overseeing the company's suite of cable entertainment networks during a period of unprecedented growth. Indeed, each network achieved record ratings in 2009; under Gaspin's watch, NBC's cable division saw doubledigit growth in revenue and profit.
And now he is charged with righting NBC. The network has been mired in fourth place and, with Jay Leno moving back to 11:35 p.m., it now has five extra hours of primetime to program.
But Gaspin has the confidence of those higher on the corporate ladder that he can get the job done. "Jeff is a decisive executive who can make tough calls when needed and takes responsibility for his actions," says Jeff Zucker, president and CEO of NBC Universal. "Like Brandon Tartikoff, he has great strengths both creatively and in running a business, and he is incredibly well equipped to navigate today's rapidly changing media environment." Gaspin stresses a "back-to-basics" approach for NBC. But he acknowledged at the recent Television Critics Association confab that he has his work cut out for him.
"This is part of the job. This is the exciting part of the job. This in particular isn't necessarily fun. But I get that this is part of the job."
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