This year's upfront week in New York was a good one for Imagine Television. NBC picked up its football drama Friday Night Lights while CBS greenlighted the James Woods legal vehicle Shark. But, while network executives heaped praise on the company's two founders, über-producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, there was nary a mention of the name David Nevins.
As anyone who knows Imagine will tell you, credit is due to Nevins, the company's television president. Although he can count Fox's 24 and Arrested Development among his accomplishment, Nevins has been overshadowed by the marquee names on the company letterhead.
“He's been a quiet storm for a long time,” says NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly. “He's had a lot of success. Rightfully, he could be mentioned every time—or he could even be asking why he's not an equal with Ron and Brian. But that's just not his style.”
STUCK IN MIDDLE MANAGEMENT
Indeed, Nevins' affinity for entertainment programming nearly escaped him. The Washington native attended Amherst College with no dreams of becoming a Hollywood producer. But after falling in with a bunch of film nuts during a year abroad in Scotland, he drove out to Los Angeles following graduation to take a shot at getting into the business.
He soon landed an unpaid internship with TV producer Lewis Chesler. “Basically, Lewis said I could sit at a desk in his outer office and tell people I worked there,” Nevins recalls.
Nevins took on more responsibilities and eventually caught the eye of NBC's Reilly, then in his first term with the network as head of drama development.
“He was a glorified production assistant,” Reilly recalls. “But I took a flyer on him, and we became fast friends ever since.”
Nevins stayed at NBC for eight years, becoming senior VP of prime time series with responsibility for such shows as The West Wing, ER and Will & Grace.
In 1999, he moved to Fox, where he stayed three years as executive VP of programming, overseeing development of such shows as 24 and Bernie Mac.
It was a good run, but Nevins bridled at the constraints of being a network executive.
“I had become that bad middle manager and was sick of being stuck,” he says. “I had that job you don't want to stay in too long, where you are responsible for everything but in charge of nothing.”
Imagine came along at the right time, offering the chance to escape the pressures of programming a network.
“At a network, you have to cover your bases,” Nevins says. “You need a certain amount of procedurals, comedies, everything, so your boss doesn't look at you at schedule time and say, 'Why didn't you develop one of those?' At Imagine, you don't have to worry about that.”
Since joining Imagine in 2002, Nevins has worked on several projects, but the one most dear to his heart—and most heartbreaking—is Arrested Development. The epitome of a critics' darling that couldn't attract a sustainable audience, the show was dropped by Fox this year. An attempted revival on Showtime fell through. “I haven't gotten over it yet,” Nevins says.
But he's consoling himself with a new slate that includes Saved on TNT, a space-themed pilot called Beyond that Imagine is hoping Fox will greenlight for midseason, and his first reality show, Treasure Hunters, a high-concept summer series for NBC. And he's looking to stay on the leading edge of network- television comedy with shows that will please more than critics.
“I want to have a big, fat hit,” he says. “It's not just all about critical acclaim.”
And for all the frustrations he left behind, Nevins won't rule out a return to the network side. His credentials no doubt make him an attractive candidate to run a network's entertainment division.
“Someday, maybe,” he says. “Those jobs can be daunting, and they don't seem as much fun as I'm having right now. But I loved my years working at a network, and I like the sense of responsibility to the audience you have. For now, I think I'm smart enough to know that I've found something that suits me.”