When Shawn Ryan submitted the script for The Shield to then FX President Kevin Reilly, he considered it nothing more than a sample of his writing. He didn't expect Reilly to turn it into a series, and he certainly didn't expect Reilly to also hand him an executive producer's job. Ryan had worked on other shows but had never written and produced one of his own.
"The easy thing would have been to pair me up with someone who was very experienced and who would have final say," Ryan says. "I asked Kevin many times afterwards why he wanted me to run the show, but he always said, 'I'll only do it if you run it.' He had an instinct that it would work."
It's history now, but The Shield went on to become basic cable's first Emmy-winning original series, and it was the show that earned FX some respect. Reilly followed up that success with Lucky, critically acclaimed though ratings-challenged, and Nip/Tuck, a critical and ratings winner.
This Tuesday, Reilly begins putting his proven programming instincts to work at NBC as its new president of programming. He arrives at the network at a pressure-filled time: Mega-hit Friends is going off the air after this season, stalwart Frasier is likely following right behind, and several of NBC's top hits, The West Wing in particular, declined substantially in the ratings last season. Fox, coming from behind last season to nip at NBC's heels with reality blockbusters Joe Millionaire and American Idol, poses a real threat to NBC's 18-49 crown this season. What NBC needs is a big hit, and fast.
NBC also is on the verge of merging its TV assets with those of Vivendi Universal Entertainment, a development likely to change the dynamic between Reilly and his new boss, NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker, before Reilly even starts. Zucker is expected to return to New York in the next few months to oversee all of the combined assets of what's being called NBC Universal, directly reporting to NBC Chairman Bob Wright. That should leave Reilly with NBC's programming department to run, giving him more autonomy sooner.
Reilly is ready for the challenge. "This is historically the time at NBC when the next crop of shows are introduced," he says. "There's something in the DNA at NBC, a competitiveness and a creativity that kicks in when these times come around."
And others believe Reilly is ready. "He is always seeking bold areas and bold ideas while rooting them in distinctive quality," says his old boss, FX President Peter Liguori.
"The kind of keen instinct Kevin has is rare in this business," says Michael Rosenfeld, a television agent for CAA, who worked with Reilly when Reilly was president of Brad Grey Television. "Most executives, most agents don't have it. It's a variable that no one can put their finger on."
Reilly says he will work as close to the edge as broadcasting will allow. "When you are cutting close to the nerve with a comedy that says something or a drama that is potentially heavy or bold, that's the time when I see a lot of people in this system get scared and run. To me, that's the time when you know you are getting to something very interesting."
NBC is not an unknown to Reilly. He worked there for six years, first as manager of creative affairs and finally as vice president of drama development, a position he shared with former ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses, from 1992 to '94. Reilly was instrumental in persuading NBC to put ER on the air, which, 10 years later, is still a top-10 hit for the network. He also developed Homicide: Life on the Street and worked on Law & Order, which has since become NBC's most profitable prime time franchise.
And he's not all drama and no comedy. He developed News Radio and Just Shoot Me for NBC and The Steve Harvey Show for The WB while at Brad Grey from 1994 to 2000. Although his FX dramas, developed since he started there in August 2000, have gotten the buzz lately, it's the comedy experience that is going to prove important in his new post at NBC.
"I do feel as comfortable in comedies as I do in dramas," he says. "I've probably been in the drama soup more than in comedy, but most comedy breaks down for dramatic reasons. There are plenty of guys who can write jokes that are funny, but you have to ask if it holds together in terms of character and story."
Perhaps most impressively, Reilly was instrumental in helping develop the pilot script for HBO's The Sopranos, the show that all programming executives in Hollywood wish was theirs.
Reilly is going to have to hit NBC running, after spending the summer essentially waiting for his contract at FX to expire. A different work environment awaits him: At FX, Reilly could focus on creating one scripted show at a time; at NBC, he'll be in the middle of rolling out six new shows while trying to develop NBC's next big hit.
Reilly, a family man, lives in Pacific Palisades with his wife, Cristan, twin boys and a baby on the way. He's a big Los Angeles Lakers fan who splits season tickets with a friend.
Unlike his new boss, Zucker, Reilly comes from a pure TV-programming background, having focused his entire career on developing quality shows and nurturing creative talent through the process.
"I love his combination of intelligence and passion," says Ben Silverman, CEO of Reveille, a production company housed at Universal. "There are a lot of people who can dissect an idea and try to make it better, but there are very few people who can do that and make you feel better afterwards. He has this awesome combination of skills that are so important to the creative process."
Reilly says, "When I took the job at FX, [USA Network Chief] Doug Herzog called me and said, 'You've learned the secret. Cable's more fun.' In cable, you can hear yourself think. You have the clarity of not having to feed the beast. You can serve it up when it's ready. That luxury doesn't exist in network television. The timeline is the biggest compromiser of all."
Cable may be more fun. But broadcast is the big leagues, the risks and rewards much greater. "One of the biggest battles is always that there will be some product that I or others will feel passionate about while others will feel nervous about it or they won't be on board with it," Reilly says. "But the key is to not let the winners get away, not to let Seinfeld fall through the cracks."