Mel's Diner: Schwartz’s ‘Modern Grown-Up’ Approach to a Rebrand

As he prepares to turn TVGN into Pop, the relaunch vet reveals why the iconic TV Guide moniker had to go and what’s so special about the audience he’s betting on
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Related: Schwartz Wades Into ‘Schitt’s Creek’ #TCA15

THE DISH: Brad Schwartz is sporting a sharp black suit and a far more rested and relaxed demeanor than anybody in his position should be as he sits down to dinner.

It’s the holidays, his Jan. 14 relaunch of TVGN as Pop is weeks away, he and his wife are house-shopping—and they have two kids under age 3. On his way here to Terroni in West Hollywood, Schwartz stopped home to light the first candle of Hanukkah. (He grew up celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas, so over the weekend he also got a Christmas tree.)

The explanation for his calm: “I feel like we could launch tomorrow.”

The network’s president of entertainment and media and the veteran of five previous network rebrands says Pop is incredibly well-positioned to succeed, with the backing of owners CBS and Lionsgate and a stellar team, including his partner in leading the network, the “very straight-shooter,” Pop’s president of business operations Dave Wisnia. What’s more, Schwartz—who at this point was prepping to announce a slate of new fan-focused programs in development, at last week's TCA —speaks passionately about the potential he sees in the positioning of Pop as a “positive, fun, funny” take on fandom that’s optimistic in spirit and “doesn’t exist on television.”

“When you’re owned by CBS and you’re owned by Lionsgate and you’re in over 83 million homes, you have an opportunity to be very big. We don’t want to be a little niche business. We want to be a big business,” he says. “We have everything—it’s the greatest entrepreneurial opportunity in television.”

And then there’s this Terroni place, a Torontobased restaurant chain that now has two L.A. locations. He feels quite comfortable here.

Schwartz is proudly Canadian but spent most of his career in New York. About a decade ago he was recruited to return to Toronto to start MTV Canada. He was engaged at the time to his now-wife, Karen Weiss. Weiss stayed in New York and they remained together long-distance.

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“I was living there [in Toronto] by myself in a furnished apartment,” he says. “And there was a Terroni at the end of my street.”

Not a week would go by in Toronto that Schwartz did not visit Terroni. “I would come home from work and I would go to the bar and I would order a glass of wine and I would order a Ricchia salad and a Bolognese to go. I would wait for my food to come and sit there and drink my wine and get my day off me. And then go and eat my meal by myself.”

His run in Toronto went well. Schwartz wound up running nine channels. “It was like 400 employees and this amazing sort of thing up there,” he recalls. “So I kept my little Terroni tradition. It became almost superstitious—that this had something to do with the success.”

Flash forward years later, Schwartz landed his current job in L.A., which meant relocating and living in a furnished apartment…a block away from Terroni.

“My crazy superstitious karma mind is like, ‘I need to go and eat at this Terroni every week while we get ready to relaunch this channel,’” he says.

It did not take long for Schwartz to place his order. Edited highlights of our conversation about the Pop relaunch over Ricchia Salad and Bolognese follow.

Early on, you were an advocate of reimagining the TVGN network, hanging on to the iconic TV Guide consumer brand. Why did you decide to let that go?

In my opinion, the greatest rebrand of the past 10 years is History Channel.…They never changed their name. They just made History mean something else....It was this brilliant, brilliant reimagination of a brand that has become tremendously successful.

So in taking over TV Guide, you kind of thought the same thing. Here’s this brand with universal awareness. There is no one in the country who hasn’t heard of TV Guide. And so when I first took the job, I was like, ‘Oh my God. That name. Let’s just reimagine it.’

But as we dug into it, unlike History Channel, people really view TV Guide as a utility. And changing from a utility to an entertainment destination was a little bit of a bigger challenge. Furthermore, it was a very old-skewing brand. All things we probably could overcome.

The thing that you couldn’t overcome was that we didn’t own the website. And we don’t own the magazine. And there’s a YouTube channel that we don’t own. And there’s an app that’s been downloaded over 10 million times—that’s not us. And when you go to your electronic program guide on Time Warner Cable, you’ll see a little TV Guide logo in the bottom corner. We can’t control that. And then all of the writers from the magazine, they all have their social followings on Facebook and Twitter, and they’re writing about pop culture all the time. And all of the editors and writers from TVGuide.com have their own social followings and we can’t control what any of them say.

In today’s digital universe, if you can’t control your brand across all platforms—well, that was the thing that just couldn’t be overcome. So it really was: All right, reinvention time.

When you’re doing shows, as you are, about New Kids on the Block, that sets the stage for a certain age of viewer. Who is your target audience?

There is absolutely a generational tone to this brand we’re building. It won’t be the leading tone. That leading tone is fandom. But we certainly feel like we’re a channel that grew up in the ’90s; ’80s are important, but we grew up in the ’90s. So that’s why we feel like we’re calling our target demo the ‘modern grown-up.’ It’s a term that we’ve coined.

We’re a 25-54 channel that wants to get to be an 18-49 channel and our kind of bull’s eye is this 35-to- 45-year-old that, through research, we have found… is showing radically different traits than any kind of late-30s in the past. It’s almost the sales pitch that 20 years ago MTV would give about why youth are so important. Right now, 30s are so important because people have delayed marriage. People have delayed kids. People are in their 30s and wearing hoodies on the weekend and yet they’ve been working for 10 years so they have money, but they want a fl at-screen TV and they want a nice car and they still go out to the clubs with their friends. We live in this age where people have kind of delayed emotional maturity, for lack of a better term.

I turned 40-(cough) years old this weekend and might have been wearing one of those hoodies you mentioned. Hmm—I can relate.

And fashion matters, too. And friendships matter too. There’s this amazing demographic of consumers that love pop culture. It helps them stay attached to that emotion of youth. It helps keep them young.…I never want to use the word nostalgic. I just think that it’s celebrating the good times in life. You remember those good times and you also have good times in front of you. So it’s all about this generation and what makes them happy. What those good times are, whether backwards or forwards.

How unusual is it in your career history to be running a network where you’re in the target demo?

It is [unusual]. I’ve spent my whole career in the music business. I started managing bands and then eventually got into music television. So I’ve always targeted youth. I think one of the expertises that I have built up in my career is millennials and youth and music and knowing how to reach them and talk to them and be exuberant and dangerous.

So this was a different opportunity to kind of target me; target myself instead of targeting millennials. But in culture today, if you don’t have a millennial sensibility to you, you’re kind of dead. Even in the consumer world. Millennial brands, brands that appeal to that sensibility, their stock prices are going up. Boomer brands are going down. So I think all the background in my career has just kind of set me up very nicely for this challenge.

Where did the name Pop come from and what else were you considering?

You and I have had this conversation about how the name comes last. You have to know who you are as a person before you decide what clothes define you. People incorrectly think that a rebrand is changing your name. That’s not a rebrand. It’s a name change. A rebrand is changing who you are at your core, your sensibility, your rallying cry, your personality.

Once we knew we wanted to be in this fan world, what do you call that channel? And we had hundreds of names. Hundreds. There was a lot of debate and a lot of fun. Because you realize you’re naming something hopefully forever.

Did it keep you up at night at all?

Totally did. My wife and I had many conversations about it. We’d have dinner, you know, people would come over for dinner and all of a sudden this would dominate our dinner conversation. ‘What would you call the network?’ I went to an engagement party and I’m at a table with a bunch of people I don’t know and was polling for names. Because a great idea, it doesn’t matter where it comes from.

Then we honed it down and then you have to deal with: Can you get the website? Can you get the social? Is it clearable? Do you want to go with a name that means something or do you want to try to find something like Hulu? Call it something totally obscure.

Then we got to a list of about ten names and we started exploring them and looked at, let’s see what they look like creatively. You’ve got to live with it. You could fall in love with a name on day 1 and by day 3 you’re tired of it. And we never really got tired of Pop.

Where I come from it could all be about soda—

Well, I’m Canadian. We call it pop. Where are you from?

Detroit. Canada’s right across the river.

We accept you!

Thanks. Honorary Canadian.

It’s great that you brought that up. No matter what your connotation is to pop, it’s a positive one. Whether it’s pop music—[Lionsgate chief] Jon Feltheimer would say he’s part of the pop generation, when we talked to him about the name. Pop music. Whatever it is, it’s got a positive connotation. It’s a strong word. I don’t think it’s male or female. It’s the same word forwards and backwards. You can do a lot with it creatively. We were able to secure poptv.com as a website. We were able to secure @poptv as a Twitter handle.

And you never want to be too on the nose. We were building this ‘fun of being a fan’ network. The last thing you want to do is call it Fan TV. A little too on the nose and kind of feels like sports.

When you peel back the onion a little bit, and you ask yourself, ‘What makes a fan a fan?’ It’s always that thing that stands out from the rest. It’s always the thing that’s so cool, that’s so special that it burns this culture of fandom, that band you grew up loving or that actor that you grew up loving. They have that little secret sauce. And what do we say when someone stands out from the rest? We tend to say they pop. And that’s how we came up with the name.

And then the greatest rallying cries are always ones that work externally as well as internally. We have this wonderful now internal rallying cry where whatever you do, ‘Does it pop?’ Whether you’re an intern or a president, does that pop? Is that the best you can do?

Let’s talk about development and production, and what you started working on once you had the brand nailed down. I started watching the Schitt’s Creek screeners. Drew me right in. How did you get that show? There are a lot of networks that I could see wanting to get their hands on it.

I’ve always believed in my career in two things: Work your ass off and treat people nicely.

And in this situation, where Dan Levy, who is Eugene Levy’s son, we discovered him and put him on television on MTV Canada. He was kind of a starving artist. When we were launching MTV Canada and we needed to hire our first round of VJs, or hosts as we called them, we casted from hundreds of people and we hired like seven original MTV Canada VJs and he was one of them. He became a very, very big star in Canada and really popped.

What really broke him to the country was we produced this little show called The Hills After Show, which you might remember. It became such a big hit in Canada that MTV U.S. started broadcasting it live from Canada into the United States on MTV. First time in Canadian television history that that’s ever happened. And when The Hills was the No. 1 show in all of cable TV, our show was the No. 2 most-watched show in all of cable TV, much like Talking Dead is to Walking Dead. So we did the first show that talked about another show. We did the first one ever. And it became a really big hit and then MTV U.S. started getting us to come down and do the big finales. It became this kind of runaway hit show and Dan became a big star, and then Dan kind of struck out on his own.

He wanted to pursue an acting career, wanted to be on the other side of the velvet rope. He came up with this show with his dad and the story he’ll tell is that he was watching the Kardashians one day and just started dreaming about, what would happen if this billionaire, millionaire family woke up one day and after a Madoff-type scheme, lost all their money? How would they be a family? Where would they live? What would they do without face creams and limos?

He got his dad involved and Dan Levy wrote the pilot and they got the CBC in Canada to commission it. And then with tax credits and the CBC, they kind of had two legs of the stool. So they needed a coproduction partner and they needed an American partner. And this is where relationships mean everything. So Dan Levy called me up, said, ‘We have a show. I’d love for you to see it.’ And when you think of what we’re trying to build, a pop culture brand, a fun, funny channel. And here was this show with Catherine O’Hara and Chris Elliott and Eugene Levy. We came in as the coproduction partner. ITV came in, international. We put it together, 13 episodes and could not be more proud of it.

Did you think you were going to be doing scripted at this point?

No. I’d been asked that question. The answer was always, ‘We would love to do scripted. It’s probably two or three years down the line.’ We’ve got to get a few hits under our belt. We’ve got to get the economics working properly before we take a swing like that.’ You think of who our owners are and how Lionsgate has defined cable networks with scripted programming, whether it be Orange Is the New Black or Nurse Jackie or Mad Men. Getting into scripted would be a way for us to go because of the amazing resources we have in that area. But from a financial standpoint, we thought it was a few years off. When this came together, between CBC, tax credits, ITV and us, with people I’d worked with before and an insanely funny script, and Lionsgate and CBS were right in there, loving it with us and we all—13 episodes, big commitment for a small cable network.

Shows like The Hills After Show, Talking Dead—A lot of people are doing those shows. Do you see Pop as a home for those, for shows talking about shows that are not on Pop?

We’ve talked a little bit about, ‘What would a Scandal after-show look like?’ It really has to be those shows that have a fervor around them, that have such a passionate following that when the show ends, people are talking about it. When we created TheHills After Show, our head of production came to me one day and he said, ‘When that show ends, there are millions of people that continue to talk about that show. Why aren’t we creating something to live in the middle of that conversation?’ And when we made that show, people made fun of us. They thought, ‘It’s a show that talks about another show? Are you crazy?’ But it was the way we did it. We did it with such love. We did it with a telestrator. We made these little songs that kind of mashed up the Laguna Beach cast. It was just a fun, fun show that loved it. And so many other people loved it. We did it live and we would live-cam people that were having Hills parties all across the country. I love that idea. Now it’s been a little done, you know. Now everybody’s got an after-show.

If we do a Scandal after-show or a Good Wife after-show, can you get people to change the channel? That’s probably a big question. All these after-shows come on right after the show. So it will be interesting. I think there’s, like you have mentioned People’s Couch, I think there are interesting and funny ways to dissect what’s going on on television and do that in an innovative, new way. I don’t know if you’re going to see a Good Wife after-show on our network where we try to get people to turn the channel.

Of course then there’s the trick with that with the owners, the people who you want to be able to collaborate with that, do they want people changing the channels?

No, they want you to watch How to Get Away With Murder, they don’t want you going to our channel. So that would make bookings hard. But a great example of that, and it’s our second biggest hit show on the network, is BigBrother After Dark, which is probably the ultimate after-show. Three hours a night, seven nights a week, 13 weeks. And the show is a monster hit.

And that works too because Showtime is a premium network.

That show is so perfect for us because it’s really a fandom show. It’s about those crazy fans of Big Brother wanting more. And it’s also a synergy show of the owners. So it’s great. It’s a great, great, great show for us.

CBS chief Leslie Moonves has been very plain in recent years about his desire to have a general entertainment cable network, and like you have said, they have had incredible success, a great tradition with turnaround stories. How do you approach the pressure of that?

I’ve never kind of believed in pressure! It’s tremendously exciting. What I have loved so much about working for Leslie and [Lionsgate’s] Jon [Feltheimer] and the CBS team, [they’re] extraordinarily supportive.

I think they believe, hire good people and let good people do good things. And I kind of feel the same way about the team that we have. Of course, if you don’t do it, find somebody else. Because they win.

So I probably don’t feel the pressure, although I understand the stakes, because it’s not my first time doing it. I have rebranded five networks prior to this one, so I have kind of got the recipe down. So I know what needs to be done.

In prior jobs, like when I was eating at Terroni and living in Toronto and I was 32 years old, we were making it up as we were going along. It was a wild and exciting time, but it all worked. But it was awesome, because we were just young kids figuring it out. It was a ton of a fun. This time, I feel like I know what’s got to be done. Now if you put together an amazing team to go execute against it, we can do it and we can make these two great owners very proud of this asset.

I think we have built the best small media team in the country. I feel like we walk into work every day and we feel like a startup and we feel like we have to be scrappy and we feel like we’re the underdogs. The fact that, I think, some of the bigger pop culture channels are taking notice of what we’re doing is flattering, but we’re the underdog. We’re just getting going. But it’s a great team and everyone is working so hard.

There is a lot of belief that we could build the next great cable brand, that channel that you never heard of five years ago and now all of a sudden it’s this channel that you can’t do without.

Related: Schwartz Wades Into ‘Schitt’s Creek’ #TCA15

THE DISH: Brad Schwartz is sporting a sharp black suit and a far more rested and relaxed demeanor than anybody in his position should be as he sits down to dinner.

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