Susan Levison has little trouble identifying the strangest moment of her career. It was the day that Mike Darnell, Fox's head of alternative programming, tried out an untitled reality concept. “I watched him go into a chamber and hang upside down with goggles on as flames shot at him,” she recalls. She still vividly remembers looking on helplessly as Darnell screamed in pain. The show was Fox's infamous failure, The Chamber.
Now, as VP of Fox's drama development, she has a different kind of reality to confront: balancing the interest of writers and producers with those of the network. Levison, 32, has supervised several pilots, including the freshman hit Prison Break and next season's Vanished. Earlier, as a drama development director at Fox, she helped in the creation of the network's hit House.
“Since moving over to the drama department, Susan has consistently demonstrated a superb commercial sense and a very keen eye for identifying talent,” says Ted Gold, senior VP of drama development at Fox. “She's sensational at selecting material that speaks directly to our core audience.”
A native of northern California, she inherits a love of literature from her parents, both teachers. But she was also a TV junkie—and moved to Los Angeles for college so she could get a feel for the entertainment business.
She went East to get her master's in English from Boston University, but Levison opted to pass on a doctorate to pursue an entertainment internship. She found one with film producer Michael Phillips (The Sting, Taxi Driver), then worked as an assistant in the literary department of CAA.
Levison landed at Fox in 1999 as an assistant in alternative programming. Pre-Survivor, the unit was focused on developing shows like Family Guy, Mad TV and Titus. Rising to manager, she went to London on business and saw how was becoming a national phenomenon. As Elizabeth Murdoch urged her father, Rupert, to do an American version, Levison started praising Idol's virtues, too. When Fox got serious about the show, she was involved in its development, including interviewing potential judges.
But ultimately, Levison's literary roots drew her to drama. Her parents like that: “House is their favorite show. They're always asking me if they can meet Dr. House and come watch a taping. I told them that's not how drama works, but I'd see what I can do.”