USA Network programming chief Jeff Wachtel wisely ignored a professor's career advice. The professor, who taught Wachtel's theater-administration class, told the young drama major he had to choose between a career in the business side or creative side of theater. Wachtel said he didn't want to pick. "Why can't I do both?" he recalls asking.
In fact, he has done both. Says Wachtel, "I've had the good fortune to have one foot in each world and use both sides of my brain."
As USA's executive vice president of series and long form programming, he is called on to be both creative and business-minded. His cable network is eager to produce original shows but mindful of budget and promotional limitations.
Wachtel calls cable the "off-Broadway of television. We get to do great stuff, but we don't get to spend as much as the big boys. You need to think of more-creative solutions."
It's a challenge the New York City native feels well-suited for. After starting out in theater, he was a Hollywood television producer for more than 20 years. He has produced original movies for HBO and broadcast networks and executive-produced his own syndicated series, Pensacola: Wings of Gold. But it was running Columbia Pictures Television that may have prepared him best for his current job.
Wachtel arrived at Columbia in 1990 to head the studio's movie and miniseries department and soon took on prime time series, with a mandate to revive Columbia's drama output. "It was the 1990s, and the word was, dramas were dead and sitcoms ruled. People said there would never be a good drama or a good market again."
His job was to disprove those predictions. He fashioned what he calls "guerilla market" tactics for developing shows. He sought out young and "somewhat undiscovered" writers and offered them opportunities to create their dream projects. One team wanted to create a drama about five orphans, and another envisioned a teen coming-of-age drama. Two of Columbia's hit teen dramas Party of Five
and Dawson's Creek
For Wachtel, series development is as much about business as nurturing creative talent. He likens starting a series to building a small business: "You analyze the market, come up with a prototype, raise capital and market it." The difference with television, he says, is that it's more fun.
Wachtel was drawn to the theater as a child. He acted in school plays and was directing by high school. After college, he toiled in New York theater with visions of directing until he met playwright David Mamet. At 23, Wachtel and a friend produced Mamet's play Sexual Perversity in Chicago
in New York. It was a critical sensation and launched Wachtel's career as a producer.
"For a year, I was [Mamet's] campaign manager," Wachtel says. "I went from office to office and said you have to read this guy's script."
The tireless campaigning produced a hit play and, when he was asked to adapt the play for a movie, launched Wachtel's Hollywood career. He thought producing would be a way station to a career in directing. "But, producing carried me along."
In Los Angeles, Wachtel moved over to television, working for Canadian producer Robert Cooper making movies for HBO. Television, he found, had similar electricity to theater: It was fast-paced, and he could be involved in all the stages of development and production. And Wachtel had a knack for discovering and developing shows.
Those skills, he ventures, carried him to USA. "I may have developed a reputation for being good at turning places around and reinventing." And, after some original hits in the '90s like La Femme Nikita, USA's original business was adrift.
As head of original programming, Wachtel gets to flex his creative know-how and cultivate shows and talent, the most recognizable success so far being quirky detective drama Monk.