After 24 years of helping buy programming for Showtime and NBC, last year Pearlena Igbokwe became president of Universal Television, where she now finds, produces and sells content for a wide range of TV platforms.
As the first African-American woman to run a major Hollywood production company, Igbokwe represents change in the television business at a time there is greater competition for viewers than ever – more networks, more original shows, more players and an ever more global marketplace.
“There’s just a lot of competition for eyeballs,” she said on a panel at the Produced By conference on Saturday. “I’ll be honest with you, I’m very happy to be on the content side. I’m thrilled about it. There’s just a lot more people who want the content we are making.”
Her panel, “How These Network & Studio Heads Are Transforming Television,” was about the massive challenges and changes in TV today.
As a buyer, Igbokwe recalled, she knew what to look for because there was a profile to each outlet. “I knew our brand had to be right for Showtime or NBC,” she explained, “but now I don’t get to make a decision about who it’s right for.”
In her new role, “I take it out to the marketplace and see where it belongs,” she said. “I just put together the best shows I can and let others figure out if it is for them.”
David Madden, President, Entertainment for Fox Broadcasting, has been around long enough to have worked in TV when there were just three networks. Now, there are hundreds which air more than 400 original scripted shows each year and twice as many non-scripted ones.
The good news, Madden and Igbokwe said, is that the changes are leading to better programming and encouraging new voices to be heard on screens large and small.
“The competition is changing all of us and has made everybody’s taste get more sophisticated,” said Madden. “It makes all of our jobs more complicated.”
Quality-wise, he added, “We have had to make our shows better. There are shows that require a deeper level of serialization…We just have to go deeper with character.” Given the level of competition, “you have to raise your game,” he said.
Panelists acknowledged growing pressure inside major conglomerates to favor shows from their own studios or affiliates.
Even so, “The shows still have to be good,” said Jeffrey Hirsch, chief operating officer of Starz. “If they’re not good, your network is not going to put on that show just because you’re an affiliated studio.”
The rise in content has stretched the talent pool, and opened doors to new voices, added Igbokwe. It has also allowed top writers the opportunity to work on more interesting projects.
“We can take out material that is more adult,” she explained. “The fact we can take them to cable, broadcast or streaming allows them to work on a lot of different material.”