After 17 years in the TV business, Jeff Gaspin figures he can sniff out a hit. As NBC's head of alternative programming, he launched Fear Factor and Dog Eat Dog. In his days as top programmer at VH1, he greenlighted Behind the Music.
So, when he added Bravo to his watch, becoming president of the network last December, and found a quirky gay-themed makeover show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
in the pipeline, he ventured that this was Bravo's shot to be the talk of cable.
"We loaded the gun and put all the money in the one bullet," he says.
It hit the target. Three million viewers tuned into a recent Queer Eye episode on Bravo, an unthinkable crowd for the artsy niche net. The show's Fab Five have even made over Tonight Show host Jay Leno and graced the cover of Entertainment Weekly.
Who Will Program?
Now Gaspin, 42, may get a chance to play in a bigger sandbox. If NBC is successful in acquiring Vivendi Universal's U.S. entertainment assets, it will welcome cable nets USA Network, Sci Fi Channel and Trio into its fold. Gaspin, a close ally of NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker and old friend of incoming NBC President of Programming Kevin Reilly, may get a crack at programming the newcomers.
If the merger is consummated, it is unlikely that Michael Jackson—who now oversees the cable networks and TV production units for Vivendi Universal Entertainment—will stick around. However, if Gaspin wants to program USA and Sci Fi, he may run afoul of the current heads of those networks: Doug Herzog and Bonnie Hammer, respectively. A veteran of MTV, Comedy Central and Fox, Herzog is a proven programmer, and he has a broader network-management background than Gaspin.
For now, though, Gaspin's eyes are fixed squarely on Bravo. An MBA graduate from New York University, he spent the first half of his career in finance at NBC before moving into programming at NBC, then at VH1 and then back at NBC.
At Bravo, he gets to flex his business and creative muscles. "Running a channel is something I've always wanted to do," he says. "It feels like something I've trained my whole life for."
Queer Eye co-creator David Collins says Gaspin can masterfully help cultivate and sustain a show. "He wants Queer Eye to be a planet and not a meteor: Planets spin around, but meteors burn out."
Gaspin is best-known as a programmer. MTV Networks Chairman Tom Freston, his boss in the VH1 days, notes that Gaspin has strong commercial instincts. While some MTVN programmers went for "the effete, cool, detached, hip thing," Freston said, "he's all about down-the-middle, let's get a rating, let's have a big show."
With Queer Eye, Gaspin did just that. But he emphasizes that Bravo is improving across the schedule.
Queer Eye viewers are coming back for shows like Boy Meets Boy, a dating show for gays, and The West Wing,
an off-net that debuted in August. The big-name drama (which comes with a hefty $1.2 million-per-episode price tag) was not a guaranteed bet. But so far, Gaspin notes, it is exceeding expectations. The 11 p.m. play pulls around a 0.7 rating, well above anything Bravo has ever aired in that slot.
In August, Bravo boasted a 0.7 prime time average, certainly not a top-10 mark yet but well out of the Nielsen basement.
Now Gaspin is hunting for new shows to feed Bravo. "Queer Eye has showed us that edgier content with interesting themes that is well-produced will always find an audience."
Some shows may come from NBC. Bravo has done some selected repurposing, offering drug-family drama Kingpin and reality shows Fame and The Restaurant. And, as Queer Eye has proved, Bravo shows can be good enough to air on NBC.
Indeed, there could be more sharing if NBC's stable widens to add USA Network, Sci Fi and Trio. For his part, Gaspin welcomes the collective strength. "I am a big proponent of having more cable assets to make us a bigger and stronger player."
As for his future, he will venture only, "I always love the opportunity to do more."