As a child, Peter Roth would dip a thermometer in hot water to fake illness so he could stay home and watch up to 14 hours a day of television. “Little did I realize it would become my adult career,” he says. “I loved it. I was introduced to relationships that I wished I could have had, and places I never could have gone to.”
He now presides at Warner Bros. Television, where he is president, but from his early years in the children's department at ABC starting in 1976, he cites Scooby's All Star Laugh-A-Lympics. When he was VP of current programming at ABC five years later, he helped develop such enduring series as Moonlighting, Dynasty and Happy Days.
After ABC, Roth landed at Stephen J. Cannell Productions in 1986, where he rose to president; he reels off 29 Jump Street and Wiseguy as favorites. And later at Fox, where he was both president of Fox Entertainment Group and president of 20th Century Fox Television, he remembers, “The most successful [shows were] The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Picket Fences, and I would have to say, Ally McBeal and That '70s Show.”
The list doesn't end there. At Warner Bros., his employer since 1999, Roth could choose from an embarrassment of riches and name checks, including The West Wing and Nip/Tuck, before adding that he's particularly proud of Gilmore Girls.
Roth, who receives a Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award after 33 years in the business, is passionate about television. He has been involved in so much of it over the last 30 years that he says, “I have a favorite show from every phase of my career.”
He's also retained the ability to watch like a regular viewer. When asked to name non-Warner Bros. shows he admires, he responds, “I like Heroes. I liked Grey's Anatomy more in the first two years than the past year. I loved the first season of Desperate Housewives. I love Entourage, and The Colbert Report and The Daily Show.” There are exceptions: “If I'm not transported, only then do I break it apart. That's the signal it's not working.”
As expressive as he is passionate, Roth gives out bear hugs to almost everyone he passes on the lot. He's also known for tearing his hair out and issuing grunts of disapproval when something doesn't pass his muster. When Roth was at ABC, producer Stephen J. Cannell remembers being on the receiving end of Roth's wrath, the product of his passion for excellence.
Cannell praises Roth's honesty and integrity. In fact, for a while, Roth ran Cannell's production company. “He's genuinely nice and extremely talented,” says Cannell. “He doesn't have that need to be right, which is really refreshing. He's the kind of guy who will be your friend and won't be making jokes at your expense.”
Under Roth, Warner Bros.' TV department has maintained its glue-like grip on network production and expanded into lower-budget material for cable outlets. He is the creative cheerleader behind 31 programs picked up for the 2007 season. Among the Warner Bros. TV hits past and present are Nip/Tuck, The Closer, The West Wing, Two and a Half Men and a host of other success stories.
“There are only a handful of executives I can think of who are as dedicated, passionate and successful as Peter,” says Roth's boss, Bruce Rosenblum, president of Warner Bros. Television Group. “His track record at Warner Bros. Television really speaks for itself, not just the quality of successful shows he's launched, but more importantly, in the quality of series created under his leadership…His relationships with people both in front of and behind the camera are unmatched.”
Cannell Productions sold the legendary action series The A-Team to NBC, and it became one of the first hits during the Tartikoff era. Roth acknowledges that Tartikoff was a role model for an entire generation of executives: “He was fiercely competitive, one of the best architects and executors of great TV, and his taste was extraordinary. He appreciated The A-Team, as much as Cheers or Cosby. He was a true broadcaster.”
That appears to be a quality shared by Roth, a man with an oenophile's nose for a sure-fire hit. “I treasure every day I worked with him,” said writer David E. Kelley, who created Ally McBeal, the unique comedy-drama. “And I have missed him every day since. It's a business where the commercial tail wags the dog, and a lot of people lose sight of why we do what we do. Peter has never wavered from that compass, and that is as true today as it ever was.”
Even Roth, however, has his challenges. He is vexed about the continuing crisis in comedy. “What's troubling and challenging is what's been happening to the half-hour scripted world,” he says. “Sitcoms haven't been relevant; they're predictable. I look at the challenge as something to galvanize us all. Comedy is in a challenged state, and it is incumbent on us all to attack that.”
As Kelley puts it: “I think Brandon once said, 'Every show has to be someone's favorite show.' Peter echoed that sentiment. It is not about putting something on the air that's going to be commercially viable, but something that cultivates an audience—not something people watch while they're doing their household chores.”