Company: NBC Entertainment
Born: Perth Amboy, N.J., 1957
Education: B.A., Princeton University
Career Turning Point: Being hired by Jamie Kellner, Barry Diller and Rupert Murdoch to start the Fox network
Hobby: Collecting wine
Most Admired Person: Too hard to say
By FRANK SWERTLOW
Garth Ancier, who took over NBC's programming department last May, has an unusual perspective on network television. He is only one of two people who has ever programmed for three networks NBC, Fox and The WB. The other was Fred Silverman, who ran CBS, ABC and NBC.
In his new job, the 42-year-old Ancier oversees NBC's program development, scheduling, publicity, advertising and promotion. He also works with NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa on the network's business affairs.
Ancier began his relationship with NBC as a high school student. He was a radio reporter for the NBC affiliate in Trenton, N.J. His full-time career at the network began in 1979 when he was hired as a program associate. Four years later, he was running NBC's comedy department, where he supervised "Cheers," "Family Ties" and "The Cosby Show."
In 1986, Ancier jumped to Fox as head of programming. Among the shows he developed were "The Simpsons" and "Married with Children."
As president of The WB's entertainment division, the second time he helped build a new network, Ancier developed "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Dawson's Creek" and "Felicity," which grabbed young viewers with their tales about teen angst.
In his new post at NBC, Ancier's mandate is to keep NBC, the most profitable television network, on top not only in revenues, but also in young viewers. After the first week of the fall season, NBC was the No. 1 network in terms of both 18- to 49-year-old viewers and total viewership. Of course, the season has just begun.
Question: What programming trend is emerging so far?
Answer: It is considerably easier to get an audience intrigued in a drama than a comedy. No one has launched a comedy successfully the first week. That's been going on for a while. In a drama, you can have that great inciting incident that launches the series, whether it is the mother dying on "Providence," or Pacey and the teacher's romance on "Dawson's Creek." In a comedy, you need to know the characters and that takes time to learn.
Story can drive a drama. The question with comedies, at the end of the day, is you have to have a gut check. Do we think this is a creatively sound show? Do we believe in the cast, do we believe in the scripts, and do we believe in the producers?
Q: One of the shows you have stuck with is "Veronica's Closet," which has struggled. Why keep it?
A: I came here in May. What we wanted to do at NBC is to put together the best schedule based on the shows that existed. We looked at the pilots we had and here are the best shows. NBC had a terrific year in developing drama and a fairly weak year in comedy development. There is a value in keeping certain number of comedies on a schedule. So certain comedies were renewed that would not have been picked up in a normal development year.
That said, you sit down with the producers of a show like "Veronica's Closet" and ask how can we make this better? You say to them that they have been in a time period behind "Frasier," which is historically great. Now we are moving the show off Thursday night. It has to be better to survive, and I think it is better than last year.
Q: What are the biggest differences between programming for The WB and NBC?
A: Several. With The WB, you are trying to hit a narrow target viewers 12 to 34. You really are focusing on a niche. At NBC, you are programming for a much broader audience. You can do shows here that you couldn't do at The WB because they were not young enough for The WB. You deal with less teenage angst and more adult and family issues at NBC.
WB and Fox have never had much success in terms of comedy. You really have to rely on drama and alternative forms. Also at The WB, if you believe in a show, there are so few voices in the process that if (The WB CEO) Jamie Kellner and I believed that a show should stay on the air, it would stay on the air. I hope that we (at NBC) would have the kind of courage that Brandon Tartikoff and Grant Tinker had when they kept "Cheers" on the air when it was one of the lowest-rated shows on the air.
Q: Why would you leave The WB, a network that has a lot of heat, for NBC, which is struggling to stay on top?
A: It was a personal choice. I am an owner of The WB. At the same time, there aren't a lot of career moves for me. I have worked on two start-up networks and the opportunity to program what I call a full-service network doesn't come up all the time. It was a very tough decision. I love the shows at The WB. The easiest thing for me would be to stay there in a very hot place and coast.
Q: So you're still an owner of The WB?
A: I have 2 percent. The management here knew about this ownership going in. I have always been clear with them that I have existing ownership rights in things that I have done, like "The Ricki Lake Show." Hopefully, all of this will be a part of my IRA account.
Q: Given your success with teen-oriented shows on The WB, will you try that strategy at NBC?
A: I haven't had a chance to do that. I don't look at The WB and NBC as the same animal. The WB is a 12-34 network. That is how we paid our bills. NBC is 18-49, the middle of the population belt in this country. We could put one teen-age drama on NBC if we wanted to. But it is not the forte of this network. I'd rather put something more adventurous on NBC, like "West Wing." Nobody has ever done a show about the inner working of a political office. I don't know if this is commercial, but it is exciting television. What you don't want to do is to clone what other people have done.
Q: How would you describe the program thrust at NBC? Fox is edgy, The WB youth-oriented. What's NBC?
A: Because NBC's niche is in the middle of the belt, mirroring the population of the audience, we will be a little more urban, a little more upscale, a little better-educated than our competitors. I think this is what my predecessors did very well.
Q: How does this play out financially?
A: In a world of more and more choices for people to watch and for people to advertise in, a show that is smarter and attracts a more-upscale audience is a more valuable show from a pure economic standpoint.
Q: Two of your competitors have teamed with Hollywood studios CBS with Paramount and ABC with Disney. Do foresee NBC developing such a relationship?
A: It's an open question. We built The WB without relying that heavily on our sister studio, Warner Bros. We had every supplier selling to us. I came in here saying that NBC can't rely on itself for product. NBC went into a mode last year where it was just going to buy from itself. I don't know if that was prompted by the very large fee NBC had to pay for "ER," but the network went into a shell making our own programs to control the costs. My argument to (NBC President) Bob Wright and to (NBC West Coast President) Scott Sassa was that we couldn't exclude that much of the creative community and still have competitive television. I lobbied hard that we should take the best ideas.
Q: But that view has changed?
A: In the last two months, you had the Viacom-CBS deal that includes Paramount and Spelling Television. You have ABC and Disney and all that company's brands. You have Warner Bros. and The WB, and Fox, which is unabashedly supplying Fox Broadcasting with all its best shows. The challenge that we have been asking ourselves in the last few weeks is, now that we have opened our doors to buy from everyone, we may find ourselves in a situation where the doors are not open on the other side. They are all selling to us, but who knows how this will shake out. To hedge our bets, we are beefing up NBC Studios by bringing in Ted Harbert (former head of ABC Entertainment), who knows the television business and has a lot of relationships with talent.
Q: What is a typical workday for you?
A: Generally 8:30 a.m. through 8 p.m. It's round-the-clock meetings and screenings, and then you go home and look at rough-cuts. I try not to work on weekends. I try to stay away from business dinners. I mostly do lunches and breakfasts. As a human being, it is very hard for me to get up, feed the dogs and cats, let alone myself, get into work, work all day without a break and then go home and go to Morton's and schmooze with an agent or a producer. I'll do it. I had to be in New York for the "Saturday Night Live Special" last week. But you have to be able to watch television and enjoy it, which is very hard in these jobs. You also have to have enough of a life and not be cut off from the way human beings behave. It's a hard balancing act. You could spend every moment you are awake doing this job.
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