It was the fulfillment of a boyhood fantasy: David A. Neuman had landed a job as a television executive. After years of hustling, networking and ultimately impressing then-NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, Neuman was ecstatic that he had snagged a coveted job as a junior creative executive at NBC.
Neuman’s excitement dimmed on hearing of his first major assignment: supervising Punky Brewster. The 1980s comedy—about an abandoned-then-adopted kid played by Soleil Moon Frye—“was my least favorite show on the network. It set my teeth on edge just to watch it because it was treacly and sweet.”
Neuman survived both the sugar overload and Punky’s weak ratings. He is now president of programming for Current, a startup cable network known best for its backing by former U.S. VP Al Gore and prominent lawyer and Democratic fundraiser Joel Hyatt.
An overhaul of the modest news channel Newsworld International, Current appears likely to disappoint many Gore critics when it launches Aug. 1. They had assumed it would be a bastion of preachy, liberal-leaning news. But the network initially aims to be a montage of short videos packaged into theme programs. Subjects could range from skateboarding to a chronicle of a young immigrant’s visit to family back home. Neuman expects some of the material to be submitted by the channel’s young-adult target audience.
When he started in the business, it was hard to program from the perspective of young adults. “The only way you could do that,” he says, “is hire people who are professionals to replicate that. With the digital video revolution, the audience fully participates. The audience can produce; the audience can direct.”
MISSED “ALL THE FUN”
Neuman is an unusual TV executive because he has cycled between the news and entertainment sides of the business. His career track includes supervising sitcoms at NBC, running Disney’s Touchstone Television (a mistake, he says, because he was a “middleman and broker” and missed “all the fun” of the creative side) and even developing his own series, the one-season sitcom Drexel’s Class, for Fox.
But Neuman’s mix also includes five years of running in-school news network Channel One. He started there at a time when Channel One initially resembled “a bad local newscast.” By the time he left, the network had acquired a reputation for smart, meaty news that connected with kids. And for two years, Neuman was chief programming officer for CNN’s domestic and international networks at a time when the operation was struggling to rebound from losses to the Fox News Channel.
The WB President Garth Ancier—who has worked with Neuman at NBC, Fox and CNN—says the shifting between entertainment and news has provided his former colleague with valuable perspective. “The entertainment experience gives you a sense of how to tell stories. You’re aware that all good storytelling revolves around conflict. That could either be fictional or reality.”
In other ways, though, Neuman is a standard-issue network executive. Like many of his peers, he grew up as a TV geek in the heartland. The son of a rabbi, Neuman spent much of his childhood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, obsessed with the tube.
NETWORKING AT THE WHITE HOUSE
On a childhood visit to local CBS affiliate WMT, Neuman discovered that kiddie-show host Dr. Max and his clown sidekick, Mombo, didn’t live in a house; they stood against fake walls in a studio. The evening news and a cooking show both used similar trickery. Far from shattering Neuman’s illusions about television, the revelation was “mesmerizing,” he says. “It intensified the thrill for me when I saw it behind the scenes.” And, yes, he set up a pretend TV studio in his parents’ basement.
The obsession continued through high school. “I was much more interested in getting into the entertainment business than going to college,” Neuman says. But he ended up doing both when a perceptive guidance counselor suggested that he apply to UCLA. Going to school in Los Angeles, he quickly deduced, could be a path to television.
Like many of his classmates in the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, Neuman minored in networking. He landed a handful of internships—with Norman Lear, Columbia Pictures and KNBC—and had plenty of opportunities to buttonhole show-biz figures for career advice.
Neuman’s networking efforts landed him a year-long fellowship in the Reagan White House. The assignment horrified his liberal father, but Neuman parlayed it into his first TV job when a White House contact put him in touch with NBC. He went to work in the network’s entertainment unit in Los Angeles. It was a golden era for NBC, and Neuman reveled in the chance to work with the creators and writers of The Cosby Show, Family Ties and Cheers.
Of course, there was also Punky Brewster. Neuman couldn’t relate to the adorable moppet even as he supervised scripts, sat in on tapings and lobbied for on-air promotion time. And Punky repaid his efforts by sagging in the ratings.
Neuman was hardly the first TV executive who privately loathed the show he was charged with helping to succeed, but he seems to have thrown himself into the mission more enthusiastically than some.
“You have to get it in your mind: I’ve got to put every bit of passion and professional energy that I have into making this as good as it could be,” he says. “And I have to discipline myself to not be lazy on this just because it’s not my cup of tea.”
Although he faces plenty of other challenges today, that is not the case with his Current job.