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Peacock/NBC Chief on Streamer’s ‘Poker Face’ Hot Streak, Ad Tier Changes and Lessons From ‘Vampire Academy’

Welcome to the 200th episode of TV’s Top 5, The Hollywood Reporter’s TV podcast.

Every week, hosts Lesley Goldberg (West Coast TV editor) and Daniel Fienberg (chief TV critic) break down the latest TV news with context from the business and critical sides, welcome showrunners, executives and other guests, and provide a critical guide of what to watch (or skip, as the case may be).

This week, we’re celebrating the landmark episode of the show with a supersized installment featuring Susan Rovner, the chairman of entertainment content at NBCUniversal TV and streaming. (Other topics include a look at DC’s new chapter, the future of Showtime and, of course, Headlines and Critic’s Corner.)

After spending more than two decades serving as Peter Roth’s top lieutenant at Warner Bros. Television, Rovner joined NBCUniversal in late 2020 and oversees entertainment programming at streamer Peacock, NBC, Bravo, USA Network, Syfy, Oxygen and E!.

The executive joins the show at a pivotal time for Peacock, which just hit 20 million subscribers, ended its free tier for new users and expects losses to grow to $3 billion this year. At the same time, she’s riding high on the critical response to Peacock’s Poker Face, the ratings success of NBC’s Night Court and more.

Here are edited and condensed highlights from the hourlong interview. Listen to the full conversation, below.

Let’s start with Poker Face, which launched Jan. 26 with its first four episodes. What can you say about its performance thus far and what you’ve learned about the Peacock viewer?

It’s performed fantastic. We are over the moon. I know we don’t give numbers —

It’s our 200th episode, give us some numbers!

I can’t right now; hopefully at some point we will be able to but [Poker Face] is definitely punching above its weight. In addition to the actual numbers, we are also over the moon about the critical response. [It] has a 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

So, renewal announcement soon?

I think there’s probably going to be some good news at some point soon.

Poker Face also does seem to be the latest word of mouth hit for Peacock following Paul T. Goldman and, on the unscripted front, The Traitors. How have the success of these three shows impacted your strategy for Peacock’s original programming?

Well, Paul T. Goldman is hard to renew because it was one kind of specific story. But we would love to do more with [creator] Jason Woliner. He did a fantastic job. There’s going to be a lot of good news coming from Peacock. What’s great about Traitors is to have a show that doesn’t have IP, that is new, that has resonated with audiences. People are talking about it. Right now, we have incredible momentum at Peacock with originals. This slate really represents me and my team and I feel very lucky right now that it’s resonated so well.

So how are you planning to capitalize on these three big breakouts?

First, we’re going to continue marketing and promoting the shows as well as having them to be the runway for the shows that are coming. Just like scheduling, we do put shows after Paul T. Goldman and Poker Face. So hopefully people can find more of our originals. There’s going to be a big ad for Poker Face during the Super Bowl, which is exciting. We’re really doubling down on it.

If every single review of Poker Face invariably mentions Colombo and Murder, She Wrote and these happen to be shows that are on Peacock. Are you able to see a tangible increase of people being curious about those?

I’m going to back up and tell you a bit about the history of us convincing Rian Johnson to come to us and do Poker Face with us. Rian is the biggest fan of the shows you just mentioned, and he set out to update them shows in a modern way putting Natasha as our Colombo. Part of how we were able to convince him to come to us is because he was watching the libraries of all those shows on Peacock. He already had a history with Peacock. More than anything, it helped us land the show. It’s too soon right now, but my guess is all that stuff will increase. And that will help keep engagement.

Peacock, on the flip side, recently canceled One of Us Is Lying and Julie Plec’s Vampire Academy, while also scrapping Dead Day, which was to have united Plec and Kevin Williamson for the first time since Vampire Diaries. What’s the takeaway?

I have a history with Julie and Kevin from my Warner days. Both One of Us Is Lying and Vampire Academy, the takeaway was that it was too soon to put those shows up on the platform. What we realized is we have to get the parents before we get the teens. And I’m hoping that once we get the parents with shows like Poker Face and shows like Traitors, that we will be able to do a show like Vampire Academy a few years from now. The timing wasn’t right. We didn’t have the skill yet to support bringing in a young adult audience

Is that what happened with Dead Day? Was that more of a YA skew?

It was more of a creative decision. We ultimately didn’t think that completely fit the platform. I’m hoping we can figure out another project that will work for the platform; I want to work with them forever.

Is that demographic situation specific to Peacock or is it something that you feel is true across all streaming platforms in general?

I don’t think it’s specific to Peacock. It’s about launching a new service. When you launch a new service, you have to get to scale. And we are getting to scale. The numbers that were released last week show how much we’ve grown. I feel so optimistic that those numbers are going to keep growing. So, within a year to two years, our scale should be big enough that we can try shows like that again.

Is that something where you have to have conversations with people in development and say, “We just can’t get any more shows that are skewing in this direction.”

Definitely. It is informing the type of shows we are currently trying to look at and greenlight.

Girls5eva was a critical breakout its first two seasons for Peacock and rather than keeping it, your sibling studio, Universal TV, sold it to Netflix. Do you have any regrets on moving that show out now that you’ve got some momentum?

The numbers didn’t completely support picking up that second season. We did because we wanted to support it because we loved it. Similar to Vampire Academy, it was very soon in the life of our service. Dramas are very bingeable and that tends to help a service initially more and grow the scale that you need to have. It came on before we were ready for it. I do think in a few years we would be ready for it and, hopefully, we can do something new with them. I hope Girls5eva becomes the hit that it deserves to be because I love it, too.

Last year, you announced a Field of Dreams TV series from Mike Schur, revealed it was going to shoot in Iowa and then the whole thing went away. Was this another case of your viewers not being ready for something along those lines?

It had to do more with budget and casting and where we were. It was a very hard decision. It was more about creative differences and just ultimately where we ended up but it was just different factors there.

We Are Lady Parts made Dan’s top 10 TV shows of 2021. The show premiered in May 2021. What is the status on season two?

Because of creator Nida Manzoor’s availability, it’s going to be a little while until it returns. It’s such a special show and I’m excited that we’re giving it a second season.

When it comes to smaller shows like that, what is the value of a little six-episode, 21-minute-per-episode show? That’s not the kind of thing that’s going to attract people for 100 hours of viewership on the platform.

These are less expensive shows that allow you to take a bit more of a risk. Paul T. Goldman, We Are Lady Parts fall under that. When you have a show that is at a price point where you can take a bit more of a risk, you can support the creative. To me, you take that shot and it becomes an engagement play and something that critics love. Hopefully, as our service grows, and as we get to scale, I do believe those shows will have a long shelf life.

Peacock launched with four or five different British acquisitions. What is the value of international and even foreign-language programming going forward on Peacock?

We are domestic only at this point. A lot of that was to get content up quickly. Right now, for our originals, we’re going to focus less on those and more on things like Poker Face, or The Best Man or Traitors.

On the economic side of Peacock, you’re ending the free tier for new users. How much of that decision is tied to the mounting losses that are racking up at Peacock? The estimation is a $3 billion loss in 2023 alone.

This is about the experience of coming on to Peacock. Our free tier didn’t offer a ton, just one episode of our shows. We believe that this is now a premium service and we want people coming onto the service to have a proper experience. It’s not about where we are as a service. We feel like we’re offering premium content and we want people to come to that premium tier.

The $3 billion that that that has been referenced is really about an investment. With the growth that we’ve had at Peacock and with the momentum we’re having, this is about an investment in the future. And I have to say, selfishly, I’m psyched because we’re really spending money on content. That’s the way I look at this: it’s about an investment, not a loss.

At the same time, free ad-supported streaming TV platforms are becoming an increasingly vital part of the streaming ecosystem. Was there a way of doing a FAST service within the overall Peacock ecosystem? 

Our goal is to raise subscribers and that’s what we’re trying to do.

At a time when your competitors are doing larger content slate reviews in a bid to right size spending, have you seen the price for content change?

Quality and expensive do not go hand in hand. What has happened over time is people just think, “spend money, spend money,” and that’s what’s going to make it great. If something comes in our door, and there’s a good reason why it’s expensive — we’re building a world, there’s cast — we’re going to be competitive if it makes sense to pay that for that show. But I refuse to spend money just to do it. People are starting to realize that you can’t just say it’s a gazillion dollars and someone writes the check. People are now vetting it. And that’s a healthy thing.

A new depressing trend that’s emerged has been streamers pulling under-performing library content and off-loading it to FAST services. Do you that happening with Peacock? And how long do you anticipate we’ll be seeing your competitors doing this?

No, we’re not doing that. We’ve made smart and deliberate choices. It’s terrible when you see that happening. I am not sure how long it will last. Hopefully, the business gets healthy.

Peacock streams Yellowstone, but not new episodes; Peacock is streaming That ’70s Show, but not That ’90 Show. What value are you getting out of having these partial brands?

We’re getting subscribers. That ’70s Show is doing incredibly well for us and it’s brought in a lot of subscribers. So, we’re getting that part of it. You’re not getting the full piece but we are getting a big portion.

It’s been a couple of weeks since the return of the Golden Globes on NBC. What’s your hindsight reflection on the one-year return of that property? What was its value and what are your thoughts looking forward on renewing that deal?

I don’t know what the future is going to hold. But I’m proud of the show that was on this year. I think the HFPA did a lot of work and made meaningful changes. And it was nice to see a lot of people show up for the show. We’re proud of the show that we put on.

Night Court has been a ratings breakout and earned a speedy renewal this week. What has the show’s performance taught you about today’s linear viewer? And how much can you say about how audiences are finding the show, is it more on NBC or Peacock?

It’s doing great both places. The linear numbers are amazing. I started working on Night Court back in my Warner days; we had a deal with Melissa Rauch coming off of Big Bang Theory and she pitched me the idea of doing this. Ironically, when I got here, my comedy team had bought it. Love the multicamera form and I believe in it. When I came here, I was very determined to be doing more multicamera comedies.

You have also had success with Quantum Leap and Magnum PI is migrating from CBS back to NBC. Is there any risk to NBC having a lineup that looks like it’s closer to 1993 than to 2023?

Yes, there’s a risk. We’re not looking to do an entire schedule of just reboots. I call Magnum the double reboot because it was rebooted for CBS and we’ve rebooted that for NBC. We leaned into Magnum not because it was a reboot but because there was a rabid fan base at CBS and they canceled it too soon.

Going back to Peacock, were there specific reasons why Punky Brewster and Saved by the Bell didn’t stick?

I didn’t greenlight either one of the shows. I think that also falls under it’s hard to get scale on a streaming service with comedies. They didn’t bring in the scale that the people that greenlit them were hoping for. I think it was just too soon. The people before me were leaning more into comedy, and I can’t really speak to as to why. Ultimately, it wasn’t the right thing to lean into initially.

The Office is a huge piece of your library and very important to the company as a whole. There’s been rumors about reboots and reimaginings with new casts over the years. Where do things stand with that?

Whatever Greg Daniels wants to do, I’m standing by with open arms.

Circling back to Night Court, that show was ordered to series in September 2021. It did undergo a considerable amount of reshoots, including a little recasting. It’s a great example of the results that networks can get when they take the time to get development right. How much has that show’s success impacted your approach to pilot season 2023? CBS, for example, just opened writers room for a pair of dramas that they’re envisioning as possible straight-to-series orders for the 24-25 season.

Covid forced everyone to reexamine the idea of pilot season. The idea that you had to shoot 10 to 20 pilots within a two-and-a-half-month period and you were picking up scripts that probably should never have been picked up, or you were suddenly casting someone that had no business being the lead of a show. It was like a feeding frenzy. And it doesn’t make the best content. As covid forced us all to slow down and look at things, the result is that we don’t have a traditional pilot season anymore. We’re all acknowledging we’ve got to get this right. A pilot is research and development; we’re supposed to learn from it.

When you have a great script, I would rather wait and get the right person in the role so that it can succeed. Hopefully, then we’re making a lot less pilots because we’re taking the time and we’re ordering the things that we love and we’re getting the cast that we believe in and, and retooling what needs to be retooled. I’m so happy about this change; it’s so much better.

That said, you’ve ordered two drama pilots so far this season. How many more are you considering?

We also ordered The Irrational to series as well, that’s probably coming midseason. We do have a lot of shows already in various stages of production. We’re going to be pickier, and similar to CBS, we may order some rooms. I don’t know that we’re going to order any more drama pilots at this exact moment.

You’ve yet to renew any of Dick Wolf’s six NBC shows. Is there a challenge there? Do you expect all six to be back?

There’s a lot of life and all things stick well. And I’m sure good news will come soon.

It is surprising that Quantum Leap was the first show you renewed from your entire slate.

That’s because we can stay in continuous production right now ahead of a possible writers strike. That’s also a shorter order. Dick Wolf does 22-episode shows, so there isn’t the same continuous production opportunity there.

You’ve also pushed a new series, Found, to the fall. That show was developed this time a year ago. How much of that decision was to ensure you had new originals in the event of a WGA strike?
With Found, we know we have something special, and we want to make sure we bring an audience to the show. We got worried that we didn’t have enough of a runway where we were putting it to give it all the love the show deserves. Moving this to fall is about giving it the marketing and the publicity time to bring a big broad audience to it because I think it’s a hit.

How are you prepping for a possible Writers Guild strike?

We are trying to stay in continuous production where we can so that we have more flexibility. Obviously, we’re doing it on shows we believe in — Night Court, Quantum Leap and LaBrea. But let’s hope there’s not a writer’s strike, though.

Listen to the full interview with Rovner, above, for more on Peacock’s Olympics strategy, how streaming deals are evolving, lessons from The Blacklist and how the executive continues to nurture her suite of cable networks alive.

Be sure to subscribe to TV’s Top 5 to never miss an episode. (Reviews welcome!) You can also email us with any topics or Mailbag questions you’d like addressed in future episodes at [email protected]



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