Kevin Reilly’s Recipe for a Do-Over
Who: Kevin Reilly, entertainment president, FOX
Where: blue on blue, Avalon Hotel, Beverly Hills, Calif.
When: lunchtime, Sept. 17, 2008
The Dish: It’s a Wednesday, and it could be a really good day or a really bad day. Either way, Kevin Reilly and I are scheduled to meet for lunch on what is sure to be a huge day—for him and for network TV. The ratings for Fox’s premiere of the much-hyped new drama Fringe disappointed, and we are meeting the day after episode two aired.
Kevin sits down at the head of our big cabana table at the Avalon Hotel’s restaurant with a Fox ratings memo in hand and a grin on his lips. He’s the boss at TV’s top-rated network and somehow looks plenty more rested than me, the girl who just stuffs her face and writes notes about it for a living.
I saw last night’s ratings, so I know it is a good day. “A really, really good day,” Kevin says.
He starts immediately thumbing his paper full of good news and rattles off stats. The look of sheer relief on his face is all you need to know.
He’s understandably effusive. Frankly, it could easily have been a really bad day, and like most executives at his level, he definitely knows from those.
Most network executives have legitimate jitters right now coming off last season’s collective, strike-induced stinker for broadcast television. The added nausea from Wall Street’s own problems makes for quite a moment in the business. Had night two of Fringe not gone so well, I would have understood if Kevin lost his appetite for helping with my opening of the new Mel’s Diner.
Suffice to say, there actually are no small days in the life of an entertainment president. Especially for somebody like Kevin, who tells me he considers this gig a “do-over” following his experience at NBC.
Kevin served as entertainment president at NBC for three years—launching Heroes, The Office, Deal or No Deal, 30 Rock and others—before being sacked over Memorial Day last year in what by all accounts was a messy separation. A couple of months later, his former boss at FX, Fox Entertainment Chairman Peter Liguori, hired him.
Kevin and I first met for lunch at Barney Greengrass right after he had joined FX from Brillstein-Grey, where he developed The Sopranos, so I’ve followed his career for several years. (He tells me he still has an original Fox script, which stars “Tommy” Soprano, as The Sopranos initially was set up at Fox; but his HBO script with all his notes on it disappeared during his move from NBC.)
“I GOT A DO-OVER”
While the Sopranos script didn’t make it out of Burbank, there is plenty he did take away from his time at NBC.
“Personally, the NBC experience was invaluable. I learned a tremendous amount inhabiting that chair particularly through such a challenging time,” he says.
But make no mistake about it, he is happy to be where he is. “I’m really glad to put it behind me,” he says of his own NBC experience. “I got a do-over. I felt very heartened that I did some work I was proud of at NBC. Certainly I think those shows endure, and I think there was no shortage of acknowledgement of what my contribution was there. I felt very good that the context of how I got bounced out of there was very clear, so I don’t feel like I got any raw deal perceptually.”
He in fact appears acutely aware of how unusual his circumstance is. “Very few people get a do-over. I got a do-over in this particular job and I don’t intend to squander that,” he says. “So yeah, I take that very seriously, but I could get frozen in my tracks if I think with too much pressure on it. So I try not to.”
He says he now has “a much more effortless system to operate in and a system that has wind in the sails,” and “a lot of confidence in the system and in management.” He says the setup at Fox “makes for a really positive environment.”
He also feels better suited personally to succeed at Fox. “There was a huge learning curve for me over at NBC,” he acknowledges.
VIDEO: Watch more of our conversation about Kevin’s take-aways from NBC here. Caution and apologies in advance: You may feel seasick from the freshman Flip camera effort at Mel’s Diner. As you’ll see, lunch arrived while we were on the development topic in the second video.
“There was a time when I would have been rolling over every hour very anxious, running to my BlackBerry at four in the morning,” he says of the night before our lunch. “I slept like a baby last night even though it was a very important night because I realized, ‘How am I going to change it?’ Whether I check the rating at four in the morning or 5:45, it’s not going to change.”
Did I not say he looks well-rested?
“The one thing I’ve really learned is you just cannot script life,” he adds. “Hopefully you set out a plan, and you then put the effort in to bring that plan to fruition and learn as you get older to be more flexible when the plan turns to shit. Because invariably it does.”
BLOWING UP THE MODEL
That description could also fit the current network television model, which feeds Reilly’s long-professed goal of blowing up what he considers an outdated and ineffectual setup.
As damaging as the strike was, it also provided an opportunity to finally make this change, he says. “If we said this without the strike, we would have talked about it till we were blue in the face,” he says. “There may have been some responsiveness to it, but post-strike the whole cycle was up in the air.”
He is basically splitting Fox’s development in two. He will have a full-blown pilot screening process this December in addition to the traditional one in March, and make decisions at that time if not sooner—like as soon as pilots come in. He says he would like to shoot some pilots in June and July; then also in July through October that he would screen prior to Christmas. Then shoot a little batch in the spring.
“Any of those can be seen in an upfront. Then start it over again,” he says.
He is also planning to create a mini-season on the air starting in March or April, carrying through July, allowing for a scripted series to hopefully bridge into summer. So Fox will essentially be on its way to having four seasons: fall, January, the mini spring-summer season, and summer.
“The mania of it is that right now we have a lot of production going on,” he says, adding that the key to this all working is making decisions as you go.
“At any given point, the challenge for us is to commit. The fault of the networks in not being able to change the cycle is that they’ve been reluctant to commit until they’ve seen all their options,” he explains. “So that’s told the community don’t bother ever coming in early because we’re not going to make decisions until we’ve seen all of our scripts or all of our pilots. Once you say I’ve got a pilot, I like it and will order you to series now in July, that begins to break the cycle so they say, oh, turning it in early could be to my advantage.”
“It’s actually a lot easier than it seems,” he says. “You order them to pilot or series when they’re ready to go.”
Expect Reilly to give more short orders a la cable, too. He tells me he just bought a script that morning, a new project from Prison Break creator Paul Scheuring that is not likely to follow the typical 22-episode pattern. “We were talking in the room about only doing 13 to 15 episodes a year,” he says. “Some high-concept shows might be better doing only 13 a year.”
VIDEO: Watch more of Kevin on making over the network development cycle here.
Dined On: So what kind of Wheaties does it take for an entertainment president to stay fueled?
There don’t seem to be any special network entertainment president foods—Kevin orders blue on blue’s Ahi Soba Salad (medium on the Ahi) and an Arnold Palmer.
There are, however, things he says you should do to keep it together.
When Kevin got the job at NBC, he consulted with one of his most prized predecessors, Warren Littlefield.
“Warren said advice number one, far and away: Get a trainer. He said because the job’sall encompassing and you’re going to be tired and you’re going to want to blow off your physical health. And no matter what goes on, don’t let your physical health go because you’ll pay the price,” Kevin says.
“He was so right. I literally went out and hired someone. Particularly when I was just completely overwhelmed with NBC and you’re starting every day with bad news. You know you’re getting up at 5 something in the morning looking at terrible ratings. It doesn’t exactly make you want to do handsprings into the gym.”
Kevin also does his best to eat healthy. “You can shove a lot of stuff in your face out of the stress,” he says.
“No, I drink as much as possible,” he says, laughing. “I try not to have hard alcohol before lunch. But I really do wonder about the old-school way of drinking. I don’t know how they ever did it—though I’m tempted some days. It’sfun till about 3:30 when you crash.”
With all this talk about not indulging, I was surprised that Kevin knew all about the desserts at this place. He orders chocolate chip cookies and a fruit plate with honey for us to share.
He has started coming here pretty often, though he didn’t know about it until he joined Fox last summer. The Avalon Hotel, at the corner of Olympic and Cañon in Beverly Hills, is a quick ride over from Fox in Century City.
“If you want some semblance of creative thinking, sometimes it’s just a matter of sitting by the pool for a couple of hours,” he says.
Reilly has been trying to get show pitches out of the office, particularly comedy, and has done some here. “We thought it would be so much more creative if we could get out of the office and do it in a different environment,” he says.
The logistics of getting everyone to a place like this at a hotel with a pool has not been seamless, though: “All of a sudden someone’s trying to pitch and there’s like that lady laughing in the background,” he says, acknowledging a woman finding something hilarious a few tables over, “or people going off the high diving board….Or they ordered some onion rings and cocktails and God this is great till the waitress comes and says, ‘Who had the Cosmopolitan and I’ve got a Heineken,’ and the poor guy’s trying to vamp while they’re serving the drinks.”
Maybe that’s the trick—the comedy pitches that will work today have to stand up to diving boards, bellowing restaurant-goers and drinks.
And speaking of standing up, lunch comes to an end. It’s time to celebrate the really, really good day with his staff. So forget all that health stuff for an hour or so—there are cupcakes coming for everyone back at the office to celebrate.
On the Books: Mel’s Diner visits The Girls Next Door’s Hugh Hefner and executive producer Kevin Burns at the Playboy Mansion.