High Flyer

NBC cable kingpin's tough job: keeping his reality shows hits and making his expanded empire work
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Road trip

Jeff Gaspin is at NBC Universal's red-hot epicenter, charged with balancing NBC reality with an impressive cable portfolio: USA Network, Sci Fi, Trio, and Bravo. Believe it or not, a chance meeting in an elevator sealed his fate.

In 1988, Gaspin was crunching numbers for the Peacock. The newly minted MBA should have been on the financial fast track, but destiny intervened.

Gaspin, a 26-year-old finance planner at NBC News, bumped into news president Michael Gartner. Both had been featured in the internal newsletter. Gaspin had placed third in a company-wide writing competition for penning an episode of Family Ties. They started talking TV, and Gartner took notice.

"He was a smart guy in business, and he watched television," recalls Gartner, now principal owner of the Iowa Cubs. "Many people at the networks don't watch any TV." When Gartner wanted prime time shows for NBC News, he persuaded Gaspin to try development. Incredibly, the bean counter morphed into a creative player.

Now 43, Gaspin, NBC Universal's reality and cable programming chief, is among the elite: one of TV's high-fliers. He has shepherded The Apprentice and Fear Factor and turned sleepy Bravo into a hip cable channel. The hit parade earned Gaspin golden-boy status at NBC. At parent GE, he's a favorite of CEO Jeff Immelt. How did he get there?

"Gut instinct, combined with taste and production expertise," says Lauren Zalaznick, new Bravo and Trio president, who programmed with Gaspin at VH1.

His boss, Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Universal Television Group, echoes her confidence. "I have no doubts about Jeff's capacity to manage a huge portfolio," says Zucker, who met Gaspin early in their NBC careers. The duo, known as the "two Jeffs," were the wunderkinds of the division and favorites of Gartner.

NBC is banking on his cable expertise.

Gaspin is one of the Peacock's few executives with a cable pedigree. As VH1's head of programming from 1996 to 2001, he dreamed up Behind the Music and fostered Pop-Up Video. As Bravo president, he plucked Queer Eye for the Straight Guy from a pile of indifferent pilots and ran it in NBC's prime time. On his watch, Bravo is soaring. Other new shows, like Celebrity Poker Showdown and Significant Others, have been well-received. Post-Queer Eye, the channel's audience has doubled; the median age is down four years to 46.2.

Gaspin is a rare breed, an executive with few enemies, a numbers guy who can shape a hit for broadcast or cable. Yet despite his prowess, it wasn't his intended path.

The son of a clothing salesman, he was the first person in his Long Island Jewish family to attend college. They wanted a doctor. "Nobody knew you could go to film school," he says, though his grandfather was a contract player for Paramount. (His old show photos were made into a poster that hangs in Gaspin's Burbank office.) "You had to be a professional."

So Gaspin settled on business school. His classmates became investment bankers; he went to NBC's station group, and got his big break.

Gaspin hatched a few daytime shows and launched Dateline. But his biggest—and most controversial—credit was I Witness Video, a clip show of dramatic local- news footage.It ignited his programming career. "We had entertainment people who didn't know what to do on Sundays at 8, and this finance guy comes along," Gaspin says. "That made me a different kind of executive." NBC Universal Chairman Bob Wright still highlights the show when he introduces Gaspin at events.

What Gaspin pioneered is now standard operating procedure in news and reality shows. Back then, he was considered a philistine. "The 'capital J' journalists made fun of Witness, but it was ahead of its time," says Gartner, who supported the effort. "It was very imaginative."

Ever a fan of controversy, Gaspin's early reality efforts at NBC, where he returned in 2001, were racy Dog Eat Dog and gross-out show Fear Factor. When he ordered Queer Eyeand Bravo's gay dating show Boy Meets Boy, he braced for a storm. "I don't know if it will work and we can sell it," he told Zucker, "but I know we can get people talking about Bravo."

They did.

Queer Eye was the show in summer 2003, gracing the cover of Entertainment Weekly. And it transformed Bravo's image. "A mass pop-culture hit put them on the map," notes Kathryn Thomas, associate director of Starcom Media Entertainment. "Now they have the freedom to program."

Gaspin, who still runs NBC's movies and specials, relishes that freedom.

Upcoming originals include Miramax Television's Project Greenlight, which is relocating to Bravo from HBO, and fashion-designer competition Project Runway. "We're taking people behind the scenes, rather than reporting the surface," he says.

In fact, Bravo is his road map for integrating USA and Sci Fi. After all, Gaspin takes Bravo ideas to—and from—NBC. Significant Others was originally offered to NBC, as was Bravo's upcoming non-scripted Pilot Season, about pitching and creating TV shows.

With USA and Sci Fi, Gaspin envisions more interplay. He can see future NBC reality pitches going to USA or an episode for a new Sci Fi show previewing on NBC. "Add up these assets," he says, "and we have incredible reach.

"I've spent my life on the frontlines of television,"Gaspin says. Now he can enjoy the view—from the war room.

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