Evan Shapiro has lived a few different show business lives. Early on, he was the theater marketing specialist who turned Shakespeare in the Park into a New York City ritual. During a long run as a cable TV exec, he ran IFC, overseeing its transition from indie film to comedy and green-lighting shows like Portlandia. He then steered two launches that ultimately succumbed to the odds after making a splash: Participant’s cable network foray, Pivot, and NBCUniversal’s comedy OTT service, Seeso. Now, he is plotting his own course as a producer, and takes a comprehensive view of a rapidly changing marketplace. His new show, Bartlett, blends satire and musical numbers in a send-up of the world of advertising. Lin-Manuel Miranda is among the guest stars on the six-episode series, which debuts today as an on-demand title on Vimeo and Amazon Prime Video.
What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of my conversation with Shapiro.
DEADLINE: What have you been up to lately since leaving NBCU last May?
SHAPIRO: I started eshapTV last June and we have more than 20 projects in active development and production. We sold a pilot to Pop called Sebastian Wakes Up., which we co-produced with Deverge and Charlie Todd. We have a really cool web comedy called Almost Asian, which is based on a YouTube show. It’s created by Katie Malia, who stars in it. Margaret Cho and Sarah Martin are co-executive producers. It’s about this young woman who wants to explore her environment. She has white and Asian heritage, and she also is pursuing a life as a dancer.
DEADLINE: We are in this world of exploding content right now – does that make you optimistic now that you’re on this side?
SHAPIRO: People like to say that content has always been king. But the battle of the platforms has been the story over the past number of years. Moving from linear to digital and mobile, it’s more about who can build a connection with the audience. As a producer, I try to tie myself to content regardless of where it goes. In each case I have tied myself to an artist.
DEADLINE: What’s the mix in your slate in terms of genre?
SHAPIRO: I’m doing about 80 to 85% comedy and it’s a mix of scripted and unscripted, long-form and short-form. I just picked up a series of three YA novels by Polly Shulman called The Grimm Legacy. It’s a very interesting space and an engaging series of books with a lot of potential. Max Riddle, which we had at the New York Television Festival last fall, is what I have been calling an Atlanta for the Trump Era. Mary Lynn Rajskub is now in the cast and is a co-producer. So it’s a nice mix.
DEADLINE: Are there any specific needs that you feel you’re looking to fill?
SHAPIRO: The need for content overall has never been higher. Not everyone knows exactly what they want, and that’s frustrating. And one thing that I think about is that I do believe there’s a bit of a bubble in terms of programming costs. The cost per episode has skyrocketed 200% in the past five years. I don’t think that that’s necessary or sustainable. So we’re concentrating at my company on talent that is new, diverse voices. And we’re trying to create a reasonable economic environment that isn’t vulnerable to the major swings in the market.
DEADLINE: How did you get involved in Bartlett?
SHAPIRO: It was brought to me by Anthony Veneziale, who was part of Freestyle Love Supreme. They’re an amazing music-improv group which Lin-Manuel Miranda has been a part of. It was a chance to work with them again after we had their show on Pivot. I came on as a bit of a non-writing executive producer. I helped in editing, came aboard as a distribution and marketing strategist.
DEADLINE: How did it end up on Vimeo and Amazon?
SHAPIRO: We saw an opportunity to take this directly to consumers. With Vimeo on demand, the user base is very high-end. But it also has a broad audience — it’s 200M users worldwide. And with Amazon, it is about being in the best retail environment you can be in.
DEADLINE: Do you feel the communal campfire of television is disappearing? Ratings declines for some recent events, even sports, seem to point that direction.
SHAPIRO: You will always have a pretty healthy amount of live tune-in for things like major award shows. But I don’t think it’s realistic to expect scripted or unscripted audiences to make an appointment to watch your show. I would prefer to live in a time when all the Meatheads and all the Archies were watching All in the Family together, or a world when all Fox News and MSNBC viewers were watching a single channel so they could share some of the same facts. But when you’re an artist getting something out in the world, the No. 1 goal is to putting it in a place where someone can connect with it.
DEADLINE: Maybe everything old is new again. My kids are obsessed with HQ Trivia, an app that requires viewers to watch at certain times.
SHAPIRO: That is a community disguised as television. … It’s a Dumpster fire that we can’t turn away from.
DEADLINE: When you are adapting something for digital or mobile, especially when it exists in some form already online, what things do you pay attention to? Is there an optimal length of episodes? A way to cut them?
SHAPIRO: It’s increasingly common. [Showtime series] SMILF is probably the best example of a show expanding from digital to linear, or there have been ones like HarmonQuest or My Brother, My Brother and Me. I think it’s about really understanding what the original voice and point of view of the original. We have this series called Trump Bites, which is very short animated segments by [Oscar-nominated] Bill Plympton using real audio of Donald Trump. Billy Shebar and David Roberts from 110th Street Films are also producing that. And our whole approach is to honor the original idea. The missteps are usually trying to squeeze a round peg into a square hole. ‘Turn it into TV – poof!’ It’s never that easy. You have to crack the story and the characters the same way as if it were an original piece.