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NBC exec: Bold pitches get backing

Jenn Metz | Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Fearlessness is necessary when entering the television industry, an NBC official said Tuesday at Notre Dame.

In a discussion titled “Developing Prime-Time Television,” a part of the Film, Television and Theatre Talks series, Katie O’Connell, senior vice president of drama development at NBC Entertainment, outlined careers in television and how a show grows from a pitch to pilot.

In order to succeed, one must be able to articulate an opinion and “be fearless about that,” said O’Connell, who spoke to an audience of mainly FTT majors in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center’s Browning Center.

“It’s really easy not to like something,” O’Connell said. “Having a fearlessness, standing up for something … those are the strongest assets in this business.”

At her current position, O’Connell guided the pilot development and launch of freshmen series like “Chuck,” “Life,” “Bionic Woman” and “Journeyman.” She also is working on a mid-season addition, “Lipstick Jungle,” based the novel of the same name by Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell.

“I literally stalked Candace Bushnell. … I happened to be at a wedding that she was at and … managed to convince her that NBC was the place for ‘Lipstick Jungle,'” she said.

O’Connell showed a clip reel, or “sizzle reel,” of 13 current NBC shows, like “Friday Night Lights” and “The Office,” and a preview of “Lipstick Jungle.”

The development process behind these shows begins right after the Fourth of July, O’Connell said, when her office receives about 300 pitches. Each year, they purchase around 60.

“A writer will come in and explain the characters, the world, the story engine,” she said.

Last year, out of the roughly 60 story ideas, eight pilots were shot in the spring. After pilots are evaluated, NBC puts together its fall schedule. Four of the pilots that were shot made it to this year’s fall schedule and one, “Lipstick Jungle,” will be added mid-season.

“The business side of television is something that’s important,” she said. “When Josh Schwartz pitched ‘Chuck,’ he said, ‘It’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin meets Bourne Identity.’ I said, ‘I have no idea what that means, but I want it.'”

In the pitch, what is most important is the world the writers create, but it also matters how they sell it to the studio.

O’Connell said many shows fit into one of three franchises – “medical, law or cops” – and that can help define the story engine, or what is going to drive the story each week.

“In ‘House,’ the story is going to walk in through the doors … in ‘Chuck,’ it’s different,” she said.

In the case of “Chuck,” its originality attracted O’Connell, along with its relation to what she called an “interesting pattern in television now.”

“The geek is becoming the hero … the disenfranchised, the underdog,” she said.

The show deals with an average computer nerd who accidentally receives top-secret information from a rogue CIA spy.

The target audience for “Chuck” is young men, O’Connell said, but finding an audience for some shows – like “Friday Night Lights,” which tells the story of a high school football team – pose problems for executives. The drama, now in its second season, is “one of the best shows we have,” she said.

“My theory [about ‘Friday Night Lights’] is I feel like if I talk to a person who’s seen it, they love it. The trouble is getting an audience,” she said.

Students planning on pursuing a career in television should be an audience, she said.

“It’s OK to watch TV. It is really important to read a script and then watch it on TV. Watching as many pilots as possible is the most instructive thing you can do … how did these shows get started,” she said.

Before working at NBC, O’Connell worked at Imagine Television, where she developed projects, including the Emmy-award winning cult hit “Arrested Development.”

That project, which was cancelled after its third season on FOX, is an example of how “television is heartbreaking,” she said. “We have to deal with a lot of emotion in the creative process.”

Also, the fate of “Arrested Development” is illustrative of “how many factors go into why certain television shows are successful,” O’Connell said.

“It is quite possible if ‘Arrested Development’ was on NBC after ‘The Office’ that it would have had a different trajectory,” she said.

A Notre Dame graduate, O’Connell encouraged students interested in careers in entertainment to take classes in the Department of Film, Television and Theatre.

“Having a knowledge of storytelling and writing is very important in this very subjective industry,” she said.

After she was asked her opinion on the Writers Guild of America strike, which reached its eighth day Tuesday, O’Connell said, “I want it to be over very soon.”

“I completely understand what they are looking for, but this could create so much collateral damage. People are losing their jobs … it could have an enormous, irreparable effect on the business,” she said.

O’Connell also showed “dailies,” or raw, unedited footage, from “Blue Blood,” a show currently being filmed and directed by Brett Ratner of Rush Hour fame.

“You have to learn how to watch dailies,” she said. ” It is interesting to see the raw material and then what it has the potential to turn into.”