The producer who is determined to bring NBC back to its glory days
Tal Rabinowitz, the network's executive vice president of comedy, talks to Haaretz about her plans to restore its status as the home of must-see TV.
Thirty years ago, when establishment television in the United States included only three networks (NBC, ABC and CBS), the joke had it that NBC was in fourth place. But in 1982, a sitcom called "Cheers," starring one Ted Danson, came onto the scene, and everything changed for the network.
Eventually, the series brought $750 million into the NBC coffers. (Its offshoot "Frasier," whose star, Kelsey Grammer, was still living in his car in the Paramount Studios parking lot at the beginning, became a similar NBC success story).
From there the laughter continued: "The Cosby Show," "ALF," "The Golden Girls," and then of course "Seinfeld," "Friends," "Mad About You," and "Will and Grace" all became symbols of TV comedy success. Those sitcoms, and the medical drama "ER," helped NBC become synonymous with the phrase "must-see TV" on Thursday nights.
But then it all fell apart. Warren Littlefield, NBC's president of entertainment during that golden age, recently wrote a book in which he claims that the network's glory days ended with Donald Trump's reality show, "The Apprentice."
Today, NBC has some smart programming, including "30 Rock," "The Office," "Parks and Recreation," and "Community." But it's ABC's "Modern Family" that viewers consider "must see TV." So this year, the network decided to put a heavy emphasis on new comedies, in an effort to bring back the glory days of yesteryear.
The person in charge of that effort is Tal Rabinowitz, executive vice president of comedy at NBC. She is 36 years old, has been at the job for a little over a year and is responsible for a new crop of shows that is receiving high ratings.
"In my childhood I watched an absurd amount of television, to my parents' dismay," she says in a telephone interview from her Los Angeles office. "I really watched everything: 'The Cosby Show,' 'Family Ties,' 'Growing Pains,' 'Full House,' 'Facts of Life' ... I also liked what wasn't cool to like and to admit liking, like 'The Golden Girls.' I was really addicted to that series.
"In fact that's how I got my first job in television," she laughs. "I went to a job interview at the former WB network, and there they asked me what I liked to watch. There were all kinds of series being broadcast whose names I could have mentioned, and I said 'The Golden Girls' and 'Designing Women' [another series about a group of women]. The people who interviewed me thought that that was so funny; they were so surprised that anyone would admit watching that, that they decided ... to hire me. Not only because of my honesty, but because it proved that I had universal taste. I watch everything," she explains.
Rabinowitz says she still likes quality shows, such as "Game of Thrones," "Breaking Bad," and "Mad Men." But she admits she's also addicted to reality TV, such as "The Bachelorette." "In fact, I think that I'll give a chance to any reality program."
Before assuming her current position in June 2011, Rabinowitz was a senior vice president of comedy development and digital programming at Sony Pictures. There she was involved in developing series like "Happy Endings" and "The Big C" with Laura Linney (aired on HOT ). Before that she worked as the director of comedy development at the WB Television Network.
"When I finished studying at Tufts University in Boston I tried to get hired for all sorts of jobs. The truth is that I thought I would return to the university to study law, I also thought of traveling to Japan ... but then I was hired as a production assistant on the MTV reality show 'The Real World.' I said to myself 'You've traveled the world enough, and there's a one-time opportunity here to enter the entertainment world. I thought I would do it for a year and go on to study law. I knew that in Los Angeles, as in Japan, I would be in culture shock. In any case, what began as an adventure for a year has grown to 14 years so far."
One of the places to which she traveled quite often was Israel. Rabinowitz's mother is Israeli and her entire family lives in Tel Aviv and Netanya. She spent her childhood summers here with her grandparents and in summer camp. "At the time I also spoke Hebrew. My grandfather was very strict. He would force us to speak Hebrew all the time, which was great. But at home in America, in Englewood, New Jersey, we spoke only English, so it got lost."
Highbrow TV, low ratings
Rabinowitz attributes the low ratings of the network's high-quality comedies to the fact that they don't address a sufficiently broad audience. "It's problematic, because we want programs that will address the general public, but we don't want to lose the sophistication of NBC's programs. It's a balance that's hard to find. In general, comedy is always a problematic field, because it's narrow; everyone laughs at something else ... Our goal this year is to address as broad a public as possible, and I think that we've succeeded with these choices this year."
Is that why they're parting from Tina Fey and "30 Rock," and from "The Office"?
"Tina is apparently staying in the family, but her program is going off the air after an abridged and final season of 12 episodes. We want her to start new things for us. Of course it was hard to part from 'The Office.' But the creators and everyone want to quit while they're ahead. They have so many amazing things planned for this season, and a tremendous advantage is that they're entering it with the knowledge that it's the last one and all the loose ends can be tied and they can reach a planned conclusion."
Meanwhile the producers of "The Office," have reportedly sold NBC a new comedy about a divorced father who has joint custody of his 5-year-old daughter. The show begins with him moving with his daughter into a building where many singles live. It sounds like "Friends + Child."
So news of the death of sitcoms is apparently a bit premature. In fact, more than anything else, the networks seem to be seeking a family comedy - one with a sofa and a missing wall or a group of friends in a building.
"It works like a pendulum," explains Rabinowitz. "Every 10 years it swings in a different direction. Now the dramas are fighting for their lives to some extent and the comedies are enjoying momentum ... I also think that it's related to the economic situation and the general tension in the air, people only want to laugh."
Will all the innovative comedies remain on cable? Could a series like "Girls" air on NBC?
"I'm crazy about 'Girls.' I'm really a big fan, but part of what makes it so excellent is what they're allowed to show on it. We have our own limitations, and we couldn't go as far as HBO ... 'The Big C,' which we created when I was at Sony - we also preferred in the end to sell to the cable channel Showtime rather that to the NBC network, although they offered much more money. Because we realized that in order to do the program properly we would have to see it on cable. Only on cable can 'The Big C' be daring, overstep bounds, maintain its unique tone. We won't be asked for jokes that make people laugh out loud every second. The viewing audience that is attracted to such a subject is much smaller than what ABC can permit itself."
Familiar faces making a comeback
Apparently the current return to sitcoms is also a return to familiar faces. NBC's "Go On" stars Matthew Perry of "Friends." "This is a sophisticated comedy, and at the same time it's fun," says Rabinowitz. "One of the creators of 'Friends' is involved. Many claimed that Chandler was their favorite 'Friends' character, so we gave Chandler back to Matthew Perry.
In the new series, Perry plays a radio broadcaster named Ryan King whose wife was killed in a traffic accident. He joins a support group, whose members become a family of sorts for him. "It's very funny but it's also sweet and heartwarming ... makes you feel that everything will be all right, especially if you're going through a tough period."
Weren't you afraid to cast Perry after the failure of "Mr. Sunshine," in which he starred?
"No, I'm not worried. Take Jason Bateman, for example. He participated in every failing sitcom for a really long period, he was even considered bad luck in the industry, and then look what happened, he went to 'Arrested Development,' became a big star and everyone is running after him. Today he's no longer willing to work in television ... The viewers wanted Chandler the wiseguy. In the new comedy that's what they got. He's a little coarse and somewhat cynical. He's simply great in it, and every time we read the script with him, we really felt that it suited the unique voice of Matthew Perry."
Another familiar face is Anne Heche ("Everwood," "Hung" ), who will play a prophetess in a new comedy to air this winter, called "Save Me." Michael J. Fox returns to star on a sitcom that will air in 2013, about a family dealing with the father's Parkinson's disease.
All the TV networks expressed an interest in the series, but NBC got it after agreeing to commit to a 22-episode season and filming in New York. "I'm so excited about it, it's simply wonderful," exclaims Rabinowitz.
Rabinowitz's days during the fall season are constantly full of pitches. "At the same time, our new programs for this fall are already deep in the production stage. When we're not at a presentation we go to hear readings of scripts, correct scripts, go to see filming in the studio. This period is very busy. These are not days when there's time to return calls, and unfortunately this is the time when people call the most and expect answers."
No sure thing
As the fall comes to a close and the winter begins, she and her team start to receive the material from the projects they bought. Then they have to decide which of those projects will actually become pilots. "By March we cast the series, look for directors etc. In the following months we run around between filming sites and continue with casting. In short, what I like about my work is that every day is different from the one before, and I never get bored."
There are also no sure bets. "Most of this business is rejection and failure. Sometimes we simply don't know whether or not something will succeed, and only gamble on the scriptwriters and on the voices heard at the presentation, and hope to see a clear and strong point of view."
The description of Rabinowitz's days and job might sound familiar to fans of "Episodes," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Entourage," and "30 Rock." But is her life really like these popular shows?
"Very much so. Alec Baldwin's character in '30 Rock' is very accurate, and 'Episodes' is also very close to the truth - especially the way it presents the people at the network. Especially, the girl who sees the negative side of everything."