As Susan Rovner Joins NBCU as TV and Streaming Programming Chief, Four Challenges Await

Susan Rovner is officially taking the reins as chairman of NBCUniversal television and streaming’s entertainment content, leading creative strategy for original content across NBC, Bravo, E!, Oxygen, Syfy, Universal Kids, USA and streaming service Peacock.

The longtime Warner Bros. Television exec, who was most recently co-president of the studio, will work closely with NBCU’s chairman of entertainment networks Frances Berwick and report to TV and streaming chairman Mark Lazarus. In addition to leading the teams that cover development and current programming for scripted, unscripted, late night and specials, Rovner will also oversee first-run syndication and manage relationships with studio partners, showrunners, producers and creative talent.

“Susan is the bold creative force we need as we rethink the future of our business,” said Lazarus. “Throughout this process I have been consistently impressed by her strong perspective, track record of success and passion for content. Susan joins a great team that is poised to begin a new era at NBCU.”

Rovner said she has “enormous respect” for Lazarus and NCU CEO Jeff Shell, the latter of whom stepped into the role at the start of the year, and looks forward to partnering with Berwick.

“NBCU has a deep-rooted tradition of having the best programming from visionary creators, and I feel so grateful for the opportunity to join this incredible organization as it builds on that legacy to head into the future,” said Rovner.

But amid a highly unusual time for the entertainment industry and the world at large, Rovner will face a number of headwinds on Day One — not least of all the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that is keeping much of the industry in limbo and throwing off regular programming cycles.

Cementing NBC’s Place in the Zeitgeist 

With its millions of regular viewers and massive primetime reach to television screens across America, broadcast network TV isn’t exactly a goner. But its cultural significance is on the wane, as younger generations turn to streaming platforms and internet-first entertainment instead of the scheduled confines of TV guide listings.

How the longtime TV exec approaches programming for NBC will determine the network’s cachet among the valuable Gen Z and millennial demographic going forward, groups that famously have little brand loyalty.

And as scripted productions grapple with how to restart filming safely — and struggle with positive COVID-19 diagnoses that pop up on set — NBC’s 2020-2021 fall lineup kicks off with primarily unscripted series such as “American Ninja Warrior,” “Ellen’s Game of Games” and “The Voice.” Major NBC mainstays including “This Is Us,” Dick Wolf’s “Chicago” franchise and “Law & Order: SVU” will not return until November due to production delays, and new series such as “Law & Order: Organized Crime” and “Kenan” won’t bow until 2021.

Rovner will be tasked with guiding the network through the rest of this pandemic-era programming, particularly as the greater company — like so many of its peers — focuses a significant part of its efforts on developing inroads in the direct-to-consumer business.

Helping Peacock Ruffle Some Feathers in Streaming

The exit of NBC Entertainment chief Paul Telegdy early last month — amid allegations of misconduct — coincided with NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell’s sprawling corporate overhaul meant to streamline NBC, the cable channels, and the direct-to-consumer business, Peacock. The streamer entered an already crowded market nationwide on July 15, following the introduction of WarnerMedia’s HBO Max in May, Quibi in April, and Disney Plus the November before that.

Rovner will have an expanded purview from that of her predecessor, overseeing programming at not just the broadcast network, but cable networks such as USA and Syfy, and of course, Peacock.

That may prove to be a tricky balancing act, ensuring that original and prestige programming on the streaming service have sufficient allure to attract new, paying customers to its subscription tiers without undermining the broadcast network’s block of scripted fare. (Peacock offers a free tier but certain shows are paywalled.)

Moreover, whether Peacock has had enough time to build an identifiable consumer brand as a streamer is a shaky proposition. Given the lack of loyalty and, oftentimes, awareness among younger viewers — how many of them believe NBC’s “The Office” is a Netflix show? — a streamer that simply houses NBCU shows and films may not yet have enough resonance with audiences.

Macro events are not helping on that front. A significant chunk of Peacock’s originals slate is on ice until 2021 due to the pandemic, save for certain announced projects such as a new “Curious George” animated movie. Rovner has both the challenge and the opportunity to more sharply define Peacock’s branding and find a sweet spot with viewers, many of whom are already doling out money every month for several streaming platforms.

Fending Off the Decay of Cable TV

Rovner will oversee programming on NBCU cablers such as USA Network, Syfy and others during a time when cord-cutting trends continue and basic cable brands look to create a sense of renewed relevance for themselves amid falling viewership. (USA, for one, fell 19% among total viewers in 2019.)

With cable networks from MTV to WGN America to NBCU’s Bravo and E! increasingly withdrawing from the scripted game and relying more heavily on unscripted to line their schedules, what does she envision for the future of USA, Syfy, Bravo, E! and others?

Other entertainment giants have readily shifted the identities of their cable brands — see: WarnerMedia’s TNT and TBS — to match new corporate strategies. Rovner will determine whether NBCU’s cablers remain on the path away toward unscripted and reality series. Weeks ahead of her appointment, insiders told Variety that E!, which recently canceled a slew of its entertainment news shows, including the long-running “E! News,” would likely exclusively house reality programming and relinquish linear resources to NBC, USA and Bravo instead.

Boosting Morale, Building a Squad

The arrival of a new head of entertainment programming follows anxieties both external and internal — external, as the spread of coronavirus has kept the public nervous and uncertain of the future, and internal, as the company focused on layoffs and an investigation began into allegations of racist, sexist and homophobic behavior from former programming chief Telegdy.

Rovner will work alongside Frances Berwick, most recently head of NBCU’s lifestyle networks, is now in charge of the company’s TV entertainment business, overseeing daily operations and commissioning and acquiring programming. But the layoffs, the probe, and the gap in leadership between Telegdy’s ouster and Rovner’s entrance is unlikely to have done much for morale within NBCU in the interim. And as Rovner builds out a team there, it’s possible that those elements will pose a headwind in attracting executive talent from outside the company.

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