In the world of reality and non-scripted television, Mark Itkin's presence is the common thread that links dozens of hit shows. In 20 years at the William Morris Agency, Itkin has become one of TV's most influential agents, and non-scripted and reality fare are his specialties.
His credits range from top network shows like CBS's Big Brother, ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and NBC hit Deal or No Deal, to cable favorites including MTV's long-running trendsetter The Real World and Bravo's popular Project Runway. Itkin is a major player in syndication, too, with credits like The Ricki Lake Show, The People's Court and freshman game show Merv Griffin's Crosswords.
At a time when reality and game shows are only gaining in influence and popularity, Itkin shows no signs of letting up. Officially, Itkin is the executive VP and worldwide co-head of television for William Morris. His role is to connect disparate parties—talent, producers, networks and studios, depending whom he represents—and bring a show to life. With his laundry list of successes and strong relationships across the industry, Itkin is being recognized as a recipient of a 2008 Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award.
A tribute to the late programming genius, the Tartikoff awards are given to executives who make significant contributions to creating television. Itkin is widely regarded for understanding the needs of both programmers and viewers. “Mark is always probing and mining and thinking and talking,” says NATPE President Rick Feldman. “He is a wonderful representative for everyone he does business with. He makes things happen.”
Adds William Morris CEO Jim Wiatt, “Mark has always been an innovator and a little ahead of the world, and that has helped make him a dominant player in reality.”
Itkin sees himself as a broker of good shows who can deliver what programmers need and audiences want to see. “A good agent is a creative dealmaker and a good salesman,” he says. “There's a fundamental need to understand the audiences they are selling to.”
Itkin has cultivated an expertise in non-scripted programming, in part, because it is an audience he does understand well. A self-proclaimed daytime addict, Itkin grew up on a steady diet of game shows including The Dating Game, The Price Is Right and Family Feud. He convinced his own family to audition for Family Feud and was a contestant on the $10,000 Pyramid after college, where he won $800. As a communications studies major at UCLA, Itkin even selected daytime TV as the subject for his senior thesis.
From UCLA, Itkin went on to law school at the University of California at Berkeley. After graduating, he joined Los Angeles entertainment law firm Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, where he specialized in music-industry deals. But Itkin soon realized that the music industry was not his passion and left to pursue other options.
At the suggestion of his old fraternity brother Mark Graboff, now Co-Chairman of NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studios, he interviewed at talent agencies and landed in the mail room of William Morris. Within six weeks, Itkin was plucked to work with an agent who handled cable, first-run syndication and non-scripted programming. It was 1982 and, he recalls, most agents would rather work on broadcast network primetime programming. Cable and syndication were less glamorous, but they were areas that Itkin knew well. “It was great timing,” he says. “Cable was new and no one knew what first-run syndication was about, but there were great opportunities.”
In a twist of fate, the first show he ever sold was actually to Tartikoff. In 1986, he made a deal with NBC to buy the game show Wordplay. In that first dealing and later in their careers, Itkin says Tartikoff was always visionary and always gracious. “He had a great gut for populist TV and he was a risk-taker,” Itkin says. “He was also so kind and respectful to young people like me in the business.”
Itkin landed his first big hit in 1989 when he sold the original American Gladiators to NBC. But throughout the 1990s, most network execs focused on dramas and sitcoms for primetime. In those years, Itkin diligently packaged non-scripted programs for cable networks and brokered deals for daytime talk and game shows.
When reality stormed network primetime in the late 1990s, Itkin was uniquely positioned. After years of toiling in first-run syndication and cable, his experience with non-scripted provided Itkin an entrée into broadcast primetime. (He has worked on a few scripted programs, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)
Over the last decade, William Morris delivered dozens of hits to U.S. TV, and Itkin played an integral role in most deals, including Big Brother, Fear Factor, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and The Biggest Loser. He also worked on some less auspicious projects, including Fox's failed makeover show The Swan.
“Mark has this unique combination of brains, savvy and a great sense of people,” says Graboff, who cut a deal with Itkin for Big Brother when Graboff worked at CBS. Itkin's experience in cable and syndication, Graboff says, allows him to forge creative deals. “He is more fluent in unique deals than traditional network primetime, such as integrating sponsors or creating a primetime and syndicated version.”
Such creativity played a major role in a recent deal for actor Tyler Perry's family comedy, Tyler Perry's House of Payne, a deal Itkin helped engineer. In an unusual model for a sitcom, the show started in limited first-run syndication and then moved full-time to cable channel TBS, where it has been a huge success. “It is a great example of how Mark thinks in non-traditional terms,” says William Morris CEO Wiatt. ”He's always been a little bit ahead, and that helps make him a dominant player in his world.”
Itkin laments that that non-scripted programming still lacks clout at the TV bargaining table. “There is still such a snob effect in the industry,” he says. But he contends younger audiences grew up watching non-scripted programs on cable and daytime talk shows and game shows, and expect non-scripted programs on all networks, in any daypart.
In the end, Itkin says, scripted and non-scripted aren't much different: “You have to find people and stories that are fascinating, and make a show that is beautifully produced.”