Fourteen years after Steve White quit running NBC's movie and miniseries department to run New World Pictures, he's back at his old job as the executive who greenlights all film production at the Peacock network.
White's job is to bring back the glory days, and he seems well qualified to do this. As a network executive at NBC, he was responsible for some of the highest-rated TV films of the 1980s. Among them were "An Early Frost," which tackled AIDS; "The Burning Bed," which exposed spousal abuse; and "Adam," which raised the country's consciousness about missing children.
He formed his own production company, Steve White Entertainment, in 1988 and went on to produce more than 30 TV movies. In 1997, White formed White/Singer Entertainment with his wife, Emmy award-winning producer Sheri Singer. The two produced 10 TV movies during the past two seasons.
Question: Independent producers used to be able to count on getting two or three TV movie projects a year, and now they're lucky to get one. Doesn't that make your job tougher?
Answer: Sure, you take a business where 50 percent of the product has gone away, and it is tough. But one of the biggest complaints producers have is, OK, that's the business, but I used to get respect for doing those two or three movies. I think they would be happy if they got respect and their passion for one movie and had some fun. Nobody can put back the volume. But I think they would like to have some fun.
Q: What about the money? How does the amount a network pays a producer for a TV movie today compare with the amount paid when you were last at NBC?
A: Movies used to go out at $2.3 million to $2.5 million in the mid-1980s, and they go out now at about $3 million.
Q: Given 14 or 15 years of inflation, that doesn't seem like much.
A: Nope. I think that clearly a license fee was never meant to cover the (producer's) entire cost of making a movie. You don't license all the rights (domestic and foreign). So correspondingly, the amount of money, the deficit (to make the film), has gone up significantly, and it has been partially offset by increases in the world market. The margins are much lower.
Q: Will you look to develop a more favorable financial model for producers to entice them to work for NBC?
A: The first responsibility of this job is to create a creative environment that makes people want to come here. You would be surprised how often producers don't make (their decision about whether or not to do a TV movie project) entirely by the numbers. It is not a business-driven model. We are talking about big movies and big miniseries. They are more like theatrical projects, and their value as a project is not determined before they go on the air, but what happens once they are on the air. If we open a movie and everybody pays attention to it and it gets a rating, we are creating value.
Q: A lot of producers have felt that NBC was a closed shop, with projects going to only a few select people. Is that a fair assessment?
A: Yeah. Lindy DeKoven (my predecessor) was here a long time, and you tend to narrow down to people who get you hits. Networks also tend to rely on a limited number of successful producers for prime-time series. Unfortunately, sometimes it is to the exclusion of people who have the next generation of hits.
Q: What TV movies are you currently interested in doing?
A: I am interested in doing the "American Century" both the last one and the next one. We have "A Man in Full," a big book (by Tom Wolfe) that has a group of interesting characters and one of the most interesting future cities, Atlanta. That is a great project for us and it is grounded in story, but it also is new and different. It's a fresh look at an American city, and there won't be four films just like it.
Q: How has "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?" affected the TV movie business?
A: It is killing us everyplace (ABC) puts it. You can't ignore it. The movie and miniseries business has always been a business of putting on something that people choose to watch over something else. It is the ultimate in must-see. "Millionaire" was on last week, and it will be on this week. We have to put on something that will make people say, "We'll give that up."
Q: HBO sweeps the Emmys every year. Are HBO's movies that much better than network movies?
A: I think they have done some great stuff, and it's gotten them Emmys. Part of it is perception. The interesting thing with HBO is that Showtime did a film about Nelson Mandela, and if you asked the person on the street, they will tell you that HBO did it. That, to me, is a package to brand and that carries over with the TV academy. Getting credit for something that you didn't do is a good indication that you have done a good job in packaging your brand.
Having product that gets awards means that you have done a good job on delivering what you say that you will deliver, and they get credit for that. I don't want to take that away from them.
Q: You've managed to maintain a pretty good reputation, even among the professional bad-mouthers. To what do you attribute that?
A: I have some basic feelings about the way people should be treated. This is a time in the business when you've got to say "no" a lot more, and one of the things that a lot of people felt was that they were discarded or ignored or dissed treated without respect, especially after having spent most of their lives doing one thing.
I feel very strongly that people need to have their phone calls returned; people need to be acknowledged. I have been a producer. Even if you have to say "no," people want to feel they were not ignored and were heard; they weren't told they were worthless and valueless. That is a lesson I would like to pass on to people who work under me.
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